As a twice-wounded U.S. Army combat veteran of the Korean War and as an actor who was frequently injured performing his own stunts, James Garner qualified as a real-life tough guy. But you’d never know it from the characters he portrayed, such as card-shark Bret Maverick and ex-con-turned-private detective Jim Rockford. They were clever, charming, self-effacing guys who seemed eager to avoid trouble, and when they were pressed into action anyway, eschewed the rough stuff and relied upon their wits and well-timed wisecracks to save the day.
Garner, who died on July 19 at age 86 in Los Angeles, was one of Hollywood’s most likable stars during a career that spanned nearly a half-century and included more than 90 roles, ranging from TV series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files to movies such as The Great Escape, Grand Prix, Support Your Local Sheriff! and Murphy’s Romance.
Garner’s rugged good looks – he stood a broad-shouldered 6 feet 3 inches, with a mane of wavy dark hair and a face that belonged on a classical Greek sculpture – were coupled with a gift for comic timing. That synergy enabled him to concoct a charming, none-too-serious counterpart to stoic roughnecks such as John Wayne.
Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin once called Garner the American version of David Niven – “a sort of innocent rogue with an easy way with urbane dialogue.” But Garner himself was more modest.
“It’s not something I wanted to achieve, being famous,” he explained in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “I was just trying to make a living.”
- Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., and had part-Cherokee ancestry. After moving to California in his teens, he briefly attended Hollywood High School but quit to take a job modeling Jantzen swimsuits for ads.
- After earning his high school diploma while in the Army, Garner briefly attended the University of Oklahoma, before dropping out and moving to California to work as a carpet installer and gas station attendant. He became an actor on a spur-of-the-moment impulse, when he drove past the office of an agent-producer that he’d once met, and a woman suddenly pulled out in her car, leaving a parking space.
- His first Hollywood role was in the TV anthology series Warner Brothers Presents in 1956, acting in an episode titled “Explosion” opposite Charles Bronson.
- When his TV series Maverick began in 1957, it was a fairly conventional western drama. But after writers began slipping humor into the scripts to take advantage of Garner’s comic skills, the show became such a hit that it passed Ed Sullivan in the Sunday night ratings. Garner left the show in 1960 after a salary dispute.
- Garner took part in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 and sat three rows away from King as he gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
- In The Rockford Files, which aired from 1974 to 1980, Garner played the antithesis of the glamorous TV private eye from shows such as 77 Sunset Strip. His character was a down-on-his-luck ex-con who’d done time for a crime he didn’t commit and lived and worked out of a ramshackle house-trailer parked on the beach.
- Garner was nominated for an Emmy for best actor in a drama series five straight times for Rockford, and won in 1977.
- He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a small-town widower who woos a younger woman portrayed by Sally Field in the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy’s Romance.
- Off-camera, he was still quick with a wisecrack. When asked if he would ever do a nude scene in a movie, for example, Garner once replied, “I don’t do horror films.”
- America felt so comfortable with him that he developed a lucrative side career doing humorous TV commercials for Polaroid with Mariette Hartley.