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''Decoration Day''

”Decoration Day” — James Garner talks about his role as a retired Southern judge

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James Garner can’t pretend his knees aren’t stiff or his back doesn’t hurt. The years have worn him down: the Korean War wounds that earned him two Purple Hearts, the quadruple bypass surgery in 1988, the knee operations, the bitter $16.5-million-plus lawsuit against Universal City Studios over royalties from The Rockford Files (settled last year for an undisclosed sum).

”Awww, no. I’m fine,” Garner says of his eventful medical history. The man who started in the 1950s as a $150-a-week contract player for Warner Bros. settles into a straight-backed chair at L.A.’s Hotel Bel-Air to talk about the turn his career has taken in recent years. ”I’m a grouch,” he says, ”but everybody who knows me knows I don’t really mean it.”

Garner sees a lot of himself in his Decoration Day role as a retired Southern judge. In fact, when author John William Corrington created the character, he had Garner in the back of his mind, according to Corrington’s widow, Joyce (a coproducer). Beginning with the 1984 TV movie Heartsounds, in which Garner portrayed a doctor dying of heart disease, he has played a series of complex, vulnerable characters. ”I’ve been this tongue-in-cheek antihero for so long,” he says, ”and, let’s face it, I’m 62 years old. It does put me in a different category of actor, which I like.”

He has just bought property near Santa Barbara and admits that it’s hard to pry him away from a golf course, but there are still things he’d like to do before retiring. He wishes he could have played the Robert Duvall part in Lonesome Dove or gotten the rights to Paris Trout. ”There’s all sorts of things I’d consider. The only criteria I might have is that it has to deal with relationships, with the human condition. That’s what I’m looking for now.”