James Garner looks uncomfortable sitting in a banquette at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby. Good. You would want James Garner to look uncomfortable in a banquette at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby. Bret Maverick would look uncomfortable there. "I can't read this menu and I'm not hungry." Garner grumbles to a waiter.

You'd want Garner to grumble, too. For several of the past 25 years of television, first with "Maverick" and now with NBC's "The Rockford Files" - just renewed for a sixth season - James Garner has embodied a crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American Masculinity.He is the spirit laconic macho, resigned to a world of Sunday drivers and[word illegible] his best to avoid fender benders. Jim Rockford is a paragon of skepticism, the kind of character Garner plays best; a barker, not a biter.

Occasionally, however, Garner has bitten. "For some reason, everybody seems to think I'm just a wonderful guy," Garner says. "Nobody'll say anything bad about me. A lot of things bad about me. I smoke too much. I open my mouth at the wrong times. And when I lose my temper, I deck people." He means he hits them. "Right below the mouth if I can get a good shot in. If they deserve it.

"There was a producer who shall remain nameless who I did that to," Garner says matter-of-factly. It was after a dispute over some scripts, for which, Garner says, the Writers Guild fined the producer. But then there was a dispute over some music. That brought out Garner's decking instinct. "If the Writers Guild fine didn't teach him, I will. And I did."

James Garner is a man's man, a woman's man, an actor's actor, and nobody's fool.

The kind of man Garner is coincides with the kind of guy he plays, and this is someone who will stand up to mucky-mucks and bureaucrats, be they police captains or studio executives. "The Rockford Files" is as good as any detective show ever on TV, and funnier than many comedies, and one of the reasons for its high standard has to be Garner's own protective instincts toward the program and his struggle to keep it from becoming just another Edsel trundling down the assembly line.

"My company produces it," he says. "What is it with Universal - in association with? That's not the way I look at it, but that's what it says on the screen. It's got another name on it, too - Roy Huggins United Public arts or something. Roy Huggins brought me the script for the pilot. That's his contribution. Made himself somewhere around a million and a quarter dollars on that; never had anything more to do with it. Oh, it's terrible. If we had that money, we could put working on the screen where it belongs."

Huggins says his contribution to "Rockford" was more than Garner credit him for. "I wrote all but four of the screen treatments for the first year, under my pseudonym, John Thomas James." Huggins says of the cantakerous Garner, "We have a love-hate relationship; I love him and he hates me." Even Huggins says of Garner, "He's really an extremely likeable guy."

"I've pretty well changed Universal's production ways with my company and I had to force it on them," Garner says. "It took a lot of stubborn screaming, ranting, raving and threatening, but finally in the second year we got them off our backs. I don't know if I scared the executives physically or what, but I scared them and they finally backed down." Universal is the largest supplier of prime-time television programs, and the studio has become what Garner calls "a factory" where the object is usually to get it out rather than on to make it good.So Garner insisted on picking his own production crews and even owns the location equipment used on the program, because he says Universal's trucks were always breaking down.

Now Garner says he feels a little like breaking down himself, after five years of tiffs and tumbles. He didn't want to do another season of "Rockford Files," but Universal has a contract with one more year to go and NBC is not in a position to let a solid hit slip away. "What I need," says Garner, still grumbling and definitely not whining, "is physical rest. Three out of five years now I've spent my time off in the hospital - leg operations, broken ribs from fights, all kinds of things. You stay on the pavement 12, 14 hours a day, five days in a row, and see what it does to your feet and legs. It's a killer!"

Of course we all thought actors were driven up to TV locations in limousines, which chauffers kept running so the air conditioning would stay on.

"Hell no I don't get out of a limousine," Garner persuasively points out. "I drive my pickup truck up there about 6.13 in the morning and we go to work. I can't do something unless I get all wrapped up in it. No offense to Jim Arness, because the poor man is in bad shape - I mean, physically - but he used to phone it in. He'd come in and they'd give him his pages of script and they'd say, "Now say this and this," and they'd shoot it and he'd go home. If you noticed, for the last 10 years of "Gunsmoke" everyone else carried the show. He just came in and worked a day and a half or something, and rightly so, because the man was in physical pain. He had arthritis, bad knees, whatever. That can get to you after awhile.

"David Janssen had I don't know how many operations - three or four. I've had six. David Soul did two years on "Starsky and Hutch" and went into the hospital. It's just pure overwork. It happens to a lot of them. Nobody knows it, and they're all afraid to say it, because they don't want to lose their image as the big hero. The reality is, it's a tough, tough job. Television is a killer."

An episode of "The Rockford Files" takes six days to shoot - one day less than the industry standard for a one-hour filmed show. Next year, Garner says, he'll take seven days like everybody else. And NBC was late in notifying Garner of its intention to renew, so the network can expect some of the shows to be late, too." "I will not work myself into the ground when I told them I didn't want to do it in the first place," Garner says, "just to make them another couple of million bucks. I am not gong to drive myself to the grave! They can preempt us and put something else on. That's their problem."

"How old is Rockford?" Garner is diplomatically asked. "He's 51," Garner replies. Pitching

"He's like a shrinking violet." says Meta Rosenberg, producer of "The Rockford Files." She has worked with James Garner for more than 20 years, having become his agent after he completed "Maverick" for Warner Bros., which banned him from the stiudio lot during a contractual dispute. The studio barber used to sneak out and give Garner hair-cuts on the weekend, Garner says.

"When we first met," says Rosenberg, "I wasn't much interested in him. I didn't watch television and had never seen "Maverick." But I have a certain affection for what I consider country people, and Jim has a kind of country wisdom and humour I love" (he was born in a small town in Oklahoma). "It's a certain vulnerability he has. I think that's why he's so good in those Polaroid commercials. If he looked as if he were really making an effort to sell something, they wouldn't work."

Garner has been costarring, with actress Mariette Hartley, in commercials for Polaroid's One-Step camera for the past three years.Because they are so funny and comfy on screen together, many people think Garner and Hartley are husband and wife. "That doesn't make my wife too happy," Garner says. He and the real Mrs Garner live in Brentwood behind a locked gate; they have two daughters - Kim, 30, and Gigi, 21.

"The other day a woman came by wearing a T-shirt that said, "I'm Not Mrs James Garner, Either," because Mariette has a T-shirt that says, "I Am Not Mrs James Garner," Garner says. "And she put one on her baby that says, "I Am Not James Garner's Baby." So I'm going to get one for my wife that says, "I'm The Real Mrs James Garner."

Hartley and Garner film about 15 Polaroid commercials a year; these spots are models of genial, no-nag advertising.

"There's no loss of dignity," says Garner, "you don't demean yourself by selling a product. It's not a hard sell because I can't do that. I tried it when I was younger and selling insurance door-to-door. I just couldn't bear to do it to people. I'd see some poor woman with a child and I'd just say, "You don't need this, ma'am," and I'd just walk away. I just couldn't do it. I knew she needed the money to feed those kids."

It is Garner's Tootsie-Pop soft center that may be his most attractive attribute; like Burt Reynolds, he comes across as strong and assertive but still accessible and levelheaded. Garner likes racing cars and playing golf, but he hates everything about show-biz but acting. He hates cocktail parties. He hates premieres. He hates award shows. He only went to last year's Emmy's because he had won the year before.

Garner plays a publicist in "Health," the Robert Altman film he just spent six weeks shooting in St. Petersburg, Fla. It is Garner's first film in a decade. He can't even remember the title of the last one ("The Castaway Cowboy"). "It was a Disney film I think. "Hawaiian" something. It was a little picture for Disney in Hawaii." The reason Garner stays in killer television, he says, is that "I hate these - they're doing in movies." Most of the scripts he is sent are either too violent or too dirty for his taste.

Of the films he has made, there are "only a few that I'm proud of: "The Americanization of Emily," "The Skin Game," "Support Your Local Sheriff," and another whose title he cannot recall ("Move Over, Darling"). "What the hell was the name of it? The one where we went into the pool with the car.

"And then there are some dogs we won't talk about. I made a piece of junk for Dino de Laurentis once, it turned our to be just terrible. A spagaurentis once, it turned out to be judt terrible. A spaghetti Western - "A Man Called Sledge." We called it "Sludge." And I made two pictures at Universal which made me swear I'd never work there again. I didn't trust them one inch. And I was right."

Garner prefers not to see any of his films, however, or his TV shows, good or bad. He is afraid of being embarrassed by them."That's the only way you can judge your work, you know - by how embarrassed you are by it. It's the same with "Rockford" or with anything I do.

Out of 112 shows that we've done, I've probably seen 12 "Rockfords". I don't like to watch them. I don't like to watch me. You take a guy like Dick Cavett - Dick sits and watches his shows all day and all night, over and over and over. Well, I would throw up! A lot! There was a "Maverick" on late one night and I turned it on and watched it for only a minute and then I had to get it off.

"People who watched "Maverick" thought it was adult. Do I think it was adult? Not particularly. It was just a cowboy show that stuck its tongue in its cheek. Naw, it wasn't adult at all." A Naughty-Naughty

Garner's favorite TV series is not "The Rockford Files" or "Maverick" but one that never lived to celebrate its first birthday, "Nichols," a modern-day satirical Western which came and went like a comet on NBC in 1971-72.

"Chevrolet bought it, and when they saw the first show, they said, "But that's not "Maverick." I said, "That's right, it's not "Maverick," it's "Nichols." It was preempted eight out of 24 shows, and changed from one night to another in midseason without any advance notice whatsoever, so you know full well that they sold it down the river when they saw that first episode. I'm sure it was somebody's wife at Chevrolet who said, "I don't like it," and that's how it get off the air. Iwas terribly disappointed.

"But when we were canceled I said, "Okay - let's kill him on the last episode." So in the teaser at the beginning, Nichols dies; a guy draws on me - and then, PLOW! He just blasts me away. And Stuart Margolin (now a regular on "Rockford") says, "Nichols is dead! Nichols is dead!" Then we open up at the funeral and I come back as my brother, to solve the killing. Then at the end I leave town on a motorcycle and a camera pans up to a sign: "You Are Now Leaving Nichols." And that was it."

Of course, he would never dream of killing off a character like Rockford, would he? An evil smile. A nasty little smile.

"Might."

It would be nothing to cry about, since Garner has a contract with NBC which gives him one year off to develop a new series in which he would return the following season. Garner's understated style makes him ideal for television, and he is aging well. If anything, he gets more likably twangy and wry with each passing year.

But he would be the last man on earth to analyze his appeal. Is he a James Garnerry type of person off the screen? "No. I don't think so, but then I wouldn't know what a James Garnerry type of person is. Everyone else knows, but I don't. I don't have any idea."

For one thing, a James Garnerry type of person might say what James Garner says when asked how he's feeling. "Don't fly with headcolds," he advises. "That's a naughty-naughty." Only Garner could get away with saying, "That's a naughty-naughty" and still retain a tough-guy posture while making a confession like this.

"I was bad last night. I got into a bag of Cheetos. Watching TV. Oh, I love 'em - the crunchy kind, crunchy. They really are so good, aren't they? My wife had me go to the market last night, so I just saw them and I grabbed them and when I got home, so that she wouldn't know - because she's trying to diet - I snuck them into my office. And then to keep them away from my wife and daughter I make the justification. Well I'd better eat them all, so they don't have any of them. See, I was protecting them.

"And I really tried but I couldn't eat them all. They made me sick." This makes him laugh. Extravagant praise of "The Rockford Files" and, implicitly, of him (he himself has extravagant praise for his fellow actors and the show's writers) makes him wriggle, but only a little.

"At least I can do it with a minimum of violence, and I can hold my head up," he says. "I mean, what we do, I'm very proud of. It's a good little hour movie every week. You walk away from it with a smile, anyway."

You walk away from James Garner with a smile, too. He roars away in his pickup truck, cutting a swath of no-nonsense through the foof of Beverly Hills.