James Garner: Actor, racer and friend.

James Garner: Actor, racer and friend.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to interview and — in some cases become friends with — a number of celebrities.

One of those was actor James Garner, who I met in his hotel room at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis and interviewed for more than two hours about his career, love of sports car racing and attitudes towards life.

He was in St. Louis for a race at Mid-America Raceway at nearby Wentzville.  His roles as an American Formula One driver in the film, “Grand Prix,” sparked an interest in racing and a racing team he helped support was testing and competing at the track.

“I got into acting as a fluke,” he said at the time, “and I decided to give it five years to see if it was a way to make a living.  At the end of five years, I was starring in ‘Maverick,’ so I decided to give it another five years.”

We ended up going out to dinner that night and talked about politics, government and what we both saw as the sad state of affairs in both.

We stayed in touch over the years.  I last heard from him while recovering from my near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2012.

“Get better and get back on the damn motorcycle,” he said. “We’re given a certain amount of time on this earth. What we do with that time is up to us.”

He married actress Lois Clarke in 1957 while appearing in “Maverick” and they stayed together for 57 years.

Garner called himself a “bleeding heart liberal” who marched in the 1963 civil rights march in Washington and advocated a number of progressive causes.  He voted once — and only once — for a Republican: Presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower and did so as a Korean War veteran.

Approached several times to run for office, Garner always said no, adding that “too many actors have run for office. There’s one difference between me and them.  I know I’m not qualified.”

He did serve as vice president of the Screen Actors Guild when Ronald Regan was president of the group.

“The only thing I remember is that Ronnie never had an original thought and that we had to tell him what to say. That’s no way to run a union, let along a state or a country,” he noted.

James Garner died Saturday at age 86.  His health had been going south for years.