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July 30, 2014
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Guest column: Remembering when James Garner learned a little about Douglas County

It would be difficult to say that James Garner was the most famous or influential person I’ve met in Douglas County, considering that I’ve talked with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and presidential candidate Barack Obama during stopovers in Roseburg. But I would have to say that meeting James Garner was my favorite and most memorable experience as a journalist.

James Garner filmed the movie “Fire In The Sky” in Oakland and other places around Douglas County in the early 1990s. He reportedly was staying at the Windmill Inn in Roseburg while he was in the area, but access to Garner was highly restricted by the movie’s public relations people. So, I had no expectations of meeting Garner while I was in Oakland doing a story. I just wanted to be able to interview some cast member who was in the movie.

While I was wandering the restricted-access filming area in downtown Oakland, I first bumped into actor Noble Willingham, Chuck Norris’ sidekick on “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Willingham was sitting on a fence partition along Highway 99 in Oakland, chatting with a small group of people. Willingham was as talkative and folksy as his character on “Walker, Texas Ranger,” so it wasn’t difficult to strike up a conversation and do an interview with him.

After I left Willingham, I started walking across the street toward the Thomas Hotel, when my best-possible dream happened. James Garner stepped out of a car that had stopped in the street (Highway 99 was closed to regular traffic) and began looking around, surveying the landscape. Unlike Willingham, Garner appeared somewhat distant and standoffish. He didn’t make eye contact with people nearby. I was reluctant to rush him too closely, because I didn’t want the public relations people escorting me away for “bothering” the talent.

I could see KEZI-TV reporter Penny Havlovick was also keeping her distance, so I surmised that my cautious approach was warranted. I was closer to Garner than was Havlovick, and because Garner didn’t appear in a hurry to go somewhere, I gradually approached him and asked if he would mind answering a few questions. I asked him what was his impression of Douglas County.

Garner wanted to know where Douglas County was, and I told him that it was the area where all of the filming sites for the movie were located. About that time, a bee began buzzing around Garner’s face, and as he took a swat at the flying pest, Garner said in true Maverick/Rockford style, “I like everything but the bees.”

My second encounter with Garner occurred near the end of the filming. A group of Oakland residents wanted to give him a gift, so Garner returned to Oakland, where a small crowd had gathered in front of the former Washington Elementary School. The gift was a brick: A local artist had painted the facade of one of the buildings where the filming had taken place in town, and used a brick from the building to display her artwork.

During a question session after the presentation, I asked Garner if receiving a brick was better than receiving a “key to the city.” Garner replied to the effect of, “Well, it is. You know, I have a lot of keys to carry around and darned if I can’t keep track of where they’re all at. But this is a very nice gift. Thank you, (name of artist), very much.” Garner was gracious enough to stick around after the presentation and pose with different people (mostly women who had their arms around Garner) for their pictures to be taken with him.

That night during KOBI-TV’s 11 p.m. news, they used my brick story as their “kicker” story at the end of the newscast. The sound bite about the keys provided fodder for the anchors to talk about before signing off. Fill-in sports anchor Kerry Kirwan said he wanted to know what door “the keys to the city are supposed to open.” News anchor John Mercer said, among other things, that he didn’t know how that worked.

Few people know that KOBI anchor John Mercer (now at WDEF in Chattanooga) spent several hours with the crew from “Fire In The Sky,” taping pseudo news introductions that would appear in the movie. Unfortunately for Mercer, his brush with fame was fleeting and his work ended up on the editing room floor. The movie’s producers ended up using former KVAL-TV reporter Susan Castillo to do the news clip that appeared in the movie.

James Garner’s role in “Fire In The Sky” was actually a minor role, when compared to some of the other cast members. But judging by the pubic reaction at the brick presentation, and the swooning women who wanted to stand next to the actor, Garner was definitely Douglas County’s favorite cast member during his brief stay in the area.

Oakland resident Monte Muirhead was the Roseburg-based reporter for KOBI-TV at the time “Fire In The Sky” was filmed in Douglas County. He can be reached at montemuirhead@juno.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 30, 2014 11:36AM Published Jul 30, 2014 11:34AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.