An Ode to James Garner (as Murphy Jones in “Murphy’s Romance”)

He was wily as Bret Maverick, and laconic as Jim Rockford, but I loved James Garner best as widower-catnip Murphy Jones!
He was wily and entertaining as Jim Rockford, but I love James Garner best as widower-catnip Murphy Jones!

By now, most of you are aware of James Garner’s passing on July 19 at the relatively seasoned age of 86. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember him as Bret Maverick (in the 1957-1962 TV series Maverick) or as Jim Rockford in a 1970s show I still can’t believe my parents allowed me to watch, The Rockford Files.

Mr. Garner shined radiantly on the small screen, but it certainly didn’t prevent him from appearing in some fine large-screen offerings.

You may not be familiar with his early film career: Move Over, Darling; The Great Escape; The Americanization of Emily; Support Your Local Sheriff (and then in 1971, Support Your Local Gunfighter); Skin Game (with Lou Gosset Jr. of An Officer and a Gentleman fame!).

Perhaps the James Garner movies you have seen include Victor/VictoriaSpace Cowboys, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Notebook (a hat-tip to my friend Jane Baumgartner Hightower here). However, there is one James Garner film I adore above all others: 1985’s Murphy’s Romance.

You say you’ve never heard of or seen it? Well then, settle in for a spell and prepare to be enchanted by the dialogue Mr. Garner wryly hurtles at Sally Field (as his May-December love interest) and the other residents of (fictional) Eunice, Arizona…

Murphy’s Romance Scored James Garner His Only Oscar Nomination: I suspect the late James Garner knew his well-written character couldn’t have been successful without a good sparring partner, which he had in Sally Field.

Murphy’s Romance was developed from a novella written by Max Schott; screenplay credits went to Harriet Frank, Jr., and Irving Ravetch. Sure, the dialogue was scripted for him, but James Garner delivered his “A” game by enlivening the words with his self-deprecating humor and flawless delivery.

Murphy Drives a Vintage Car Detailed with Modern Causes: When Sally Field rolls into Arizona with her (movie) son, Corey Haim, her intent is to start a horse-training-and-boarding business.

After the obligatory scenes detailing her efforts to resuscitate a small horse ranch that’s a true fixer-upper, Sally’s character, Emma Moriarty, drives into town to spread the word about her fledgling business via a stack of flyers.

Just as she’s placed a flyer on the windshield of a 1930 (or 1927) Studebaker Model 53 parked in front of Murphy’s Pharmacy, James Garner’s voice booms from behind with this gem of a line:

“Lady, you’re covering up my causes.”

Please keep in mind I’m channeling this movie for you from 1985. Some of Murphy’s causes, promoted by way of bumper sticker, proclaim: “No Nukes,” “Save the Whales,” and “Re-Forest America.” Dang, Murphy, you had me at “Stop Strip-Mining!”

James Garner Dispenses More Than Pharmaceuticals in His Town: In the film, Murphy Jones is not just the local pharmacist–he’s also a walking CRM database of the residents’ habits and eccentricities. As such, he has many of the most amusing and emotionally touching lines in the film. Here are more of what I fondly think of as “Murphy-isms”:

“I’m a widower. That’s like catnip to a cat, in a town where the ladies outnumber you ten to one.”

(After Emma says to Murphy, “Don’t you know you can’t fight City Hall?”) “You can wrestle ’em!”

“You are a miserable little son of a bitch, you know that? I don’t know why she took you in the house… I’d bed you down with the dogs! And I’ll tell you something else, mister, you may be a lot younger and stronger, but you’re about to get your ass kicked from here to the state line… and I’m wearin’ the boots that can do it!”

“My friends have overlooked my shortcomings, seen me through some dark days, and brightened up the rest of them. I’m glad to have them; I’m honored to have them; I’m lucky to have them.”

Murphy Has All the Right Moves as a Father Figure to Emma’s Son: Several scenes in the film reveal Murphy’s on-target instincts regarding fatherhood. One such moment occurs the day after Emma, her ex-husband Bobby Jack, her son Jake, and Murphy play a competitive game of gin rummy after dinner, using matchsticks in lieu of money.

The next night, sitting on a bench outside the town’s only movie theater, Jake admits to Murphy he saw his father cheat during the previous night’s card game. (With nothing more valuable than matchsticks at stake, Bobby Jack pulled cards from the bottom of the deck.)

Murphy then proceeds to dispense some fatherly advice. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like this: Murphy tells Jake it was probably a good thing that he noticed his father cheating, and he can decide whether or not to take after Bobby Jack.

James Garner Acrobatically Dodges Sally’s “How Old Are You?” Inquiries: Throughout the film, James Garner’s Murphy plays a tough game of verbal volleyball with Sally Field’s Emma regarding his age, which he refuses to divulge. One of Garner’s best retorts occurs during a surprise birthday party for Murphy.

Thinking she has him trapped (at last) into telling the truth, Emma asks Murphy how many candles she should put on his birthday cake. As only James Garner can, with an inscrutable look on his face and in a low baritone, he says:

“Just set the damn thing on fire.”

Murphy subsequently reveals his age at the very end of the film. He and Emma finally admit they’re in love: Emma for the first time in her life, and Murphy for the last time in his life. As they walk into Emma’s house, we finally get the 4-1-1 on Murphy’s age with two simple words: “I’m 60.” (End of film, roll credits!)


If you were expecting me to translate this marvelous film into shrewd business lessons, I hope you weren’t too disappointed. My only true motive in penning this “love letter” to James Garner is to lure you into watching Murphy’s Romance when next it randomly appears on TV.

Have I succeeded? Is it possible you now look forward to watching a movie from 1985 devoid of CGI special effects, an insane body count, and gratuitous sex scenes? Please lie to me and say “yes.” I have the film on DVD, so if any of you local South Jersey peeps are interested in viewing it, please inquire within. May James Garner memorably live on through his film and TV work…

Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print and web marketing or educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at  for a no-obligation project quote today!

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