An Interview with James Whitmore, Jr.
Written by Jim Suva
James Whitmore, Jr. was born in New York in 1948, and was raised in Southern California. Mr. Whitmore is an accomplished actor and director. Many people will remember his performances as Jim Gutterman on Baa Baa Black Sheep, as well as Freddie Beamer on The Rockford Files. He has also appeared in a number of other roles throughout his acting career.
He has directed many different TV shows, starting with Hunter (mid-1980s) and is currently best known for his directing on NCIS and NCIS LA.
Mr. Whitmore did not realize he wanted to go into acting until he went to college, and attended an acting school.
Ralph Waite, an old friend of the family started a theater in Los Angeles which became the LA Theater Center. Mr. Whitmore was hired to be the house manager. Mr. Whitmore started auditioning for different parts and appeared in some of their shows. He was discovered by a casting director and started getting parts on different TV shows.
Mr. Whitmore went to an audition for the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep, even though he had no idea what the series was about. This is where he met Stephen J. Cannell, one of the writers on the show. He said that Stephen was such a good writer that within the first page of dialog the character was defined. When Mr. Whitmore left that day, he had the part of Jim Gutterman.
While working on Baa Baa Black Sheep, later retitled Black Sheep Squadron, Mr. Whitmore had just finished up the season’s filming. The Rockford Files still had a few episodes to be filmed that year, so Stephen Cannell called and asked him to do the part of Freddie Beamer. This was the first episode Stephen Cannell directed.
Our interview continues at this point.
Do you remember meeting James Garner for the first time?
Jim was one of my heroes as an actor. We met on the set in Burbank. Garner was driving Rocky’s pickup truck. Jim drove the truck with lights mounted on the hood and he basically ran the whole scene. I had prepared the night before to do the scene, which had Freddie Beamer talking a lot of BS about wanting to be a private investigator. Jim drove around the block two or three times and we did the scene several times. So this tells you about James Garner. He told me, “You just saved the company a lot of money.” This was because I was fully prepared.
Mr. Whitmore also said that Garner was an A-Z man. He knew what was going on around the show. Jim owned all the Cherokee Production trucks involved with The Rockford Files. In fact he remembers Jim watching one of the teamsters pumping gas into one of the trucks. The teamster spilled some gas on the truck and Jim told him to be careful with the paint job.
How did you get into directing?
Stephen Cannell called me about a part on the TV show Hunter. It was about a detective, with a comedy twist for the show. I said sure, but I would like to direct an episode. Stephen immediately said yes. I had never directed anything in my life and was surprised at his answer.
Later I was talking with a friend, after I was working on Hunter and told him about directing. My friend told me to call up and do it. So I called Jo Swerling Jr, one of the producers, and I got a date to start as director for an episode that day.
Do you prefer acting over directing?
Acting is as much fun as can be. Pretending and fun as different characters. If a wonderful part came along I would do it.
Directing is easier but also more effort. Putting together a show and seeing the finished project.
It is really hard to choose. I would keep directing, it makes more money to pay the bills.
NCIS and NCIS LA both have roots to The Rockford Files. Charles Floyd Johnson and number of other people work currently on these shows.
You directed the first Rockford movie I Still Love LA. What was it like to come back with pretty much the same cast and crew?
At the time I had been working on shows like The X Files and creepy shows up in Vancouver, mostly at night and in the fog. It was so nice to be back in LA and going to work in the sunshine. I have to say it was the most fun of my life. Watching Stuart [Margolin] and Jimmy [Garner] and Joe [Santos] was great. In fact watching Stuart and Jimmy work was like watching Abbott and Costello. They have such great chemistry together. I would drive home at night and laugh my ass off at what we shot that day.
I would like to thank Mr. Whitmore for his wonderful characters, like Freddie Beamer, that we still enjoy today!
For more a more detailed list of James Whitmore, Jr.’s work please check out: