James Garner and director Glenn Jordan have certainly made quite a team when it comes to made-for-TV movies.
They've worked together on a pair of Hallmark Hall of Fame productions - "Heartsounds" and "Promise." (And Jordan won an Emmy for the latter.) They reteamed on "Barbarians at the Gate," the 1992 Emmy-winner, which is arguably among the best made-for-TV movies ever made.And they're back together again on "Legalese," a made-for-TNT movie (which airs Sunday at 6, 8 and 10 p.m.) with more than a few echoes of the satire that distinguished "Barbarians."
In both telefilms, Garner's character isn't exactly the greatest of guys. In "Barbarians," he played an avaricious businessman whose only real concern was for himself. In "Legalese," he's a lawyer who doesn't care about things like truth, justice and the American way - his only concern is winning.
"He's just a darn good lawyer who learned to do what most good lawyers do, and that's bend the law," Garner said in a recent interview with TV critics. "They win cases no matter how they do it. He didn't see anything immoral about it. I think the rest of the people would, but he didn't."
"Legalese" casts Garner as star attorney Norman Keane, who isn't any too popular at the moment because he keeps getting obviously guilty clients off. So he comes up with an interesting plan when a high-profile model (Gina Gershon) shoots and kills her brother-in-law, with whom she was having an affair.
Instead of being the standup guy himself, Norman coaches idealistic rookie attorney Roy Guyton (Edward Kerr), even sticking a tiny receiver in the young man's ear so he can tell him what to say.
"Legalese" is as much a satire on the media as it is on the legal profession, with Kathleen Turner cast as the barracuda-like host of a tabloid TV show.
Norman is by no means a good guy, but with Garner cast in the role he comes off just as he was intended - a deeply flawed but relatable character. And there aren't many actors who could pull that off.
Garner himself sees direct comparisons between his roles in "Legalese" and "Barbarians at the Gate."
"The `Barbarians' guy was not a hero. Not by any means," he said. "He has some edges on him that were very, very rough and bad.
"But I haven't done any out-and-out villains. I don't think people are going to hire me for that because of the persona I've had for 45 years. I think they're going to hire me to make a bad guy a little better and more presentable, but I don't think anybody's going to hire me for a real out-and-out killer."
But Jordan, for one, doesn't see that as any sort of failing.
"It seems to me he's almost the last in a line of very natural actors who have total belief and total sincerity and simplicity," Jordan said, "and are able to play a wide range of characters with that kind of simple belief. I'm thinking of people like Gary Cooper (and) Spencer Tracy.
"Whatever it is, I think he's that kind of actor, and I think he's as good as those actors. He's a wonderful actor who has total belief in what he's doing. He's incapable of being unconvincing. I've never known him in any take . . . to do something that was phony. He's just not capable of doing that. And I think that makes him a brilliant actor."
Listening to that praise, Garner looked both pleased and somewhat abashed. But he refused to take himself overly seriously and expressed some surprise that his career has lasted as long as it has.
"You know, it's a career. You start and you have the middle and then you have the end, and you just go at it," he said.
Garner did say, however, that he'd "hate" to be starting out as an actor today.
"I can't imagine starting a career right now,' he said. "I wouldn't know how to do it. There's so much competition. Of course, in that time it was just as tough in another direction. I've just worked and managed to do it for 45 years."