American actor James Garner (1928–2014) shattered television archetypes with his acclaimed performances as the lead in two popular series, Maverick and The Rockford Files. The first was a smart spoof of the western genre and transformed Garner into a bona fide movie star in the late 1950s. In 1974, Garner returned to television as the charming rogue and private detective Jim Rockford, a part so deftly written that Garner's six-season run on NBC inspired the creators of popular television series The Sopranos and Mad Men.
Warner Brothers executives renamed James Scott Bumgarner when they signed him to a film and television deal in 1956. Born on April 7, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma, James Garner was a proud Oklahoman with a Cherokee Nation grandfather. His other grandfather probably arrived during or shortly after the famous Oklahoma land rush of 1889, when federal authorities opened up the territory to settlement. Garner was the youngest of Weldon “Bill” and Mildred Bumgarner's three sons. Bill ran a small general store in rural Denver, Oklahoma, and the family lived behind the store in rooms that lacked indoor plumbing. Compounding their woes during the Great Depression was the death of Garner's mother when he was four years old; he later learned from a cousin that Mildred had died from fatal complications after an abortion.
In the early 1940s, Garner joined his father in Los Angeles and had his first brush with fame as a student at Hollywood High School, when he modeled for Jantzen, the swimwear company. He returned to Norman to stay with a brother, made an unwise decision to enlist in the U.S. Merchant Marines—he was unable to conquer persistent seasickness—and wound up serving with a National Guard unit and fighting in the Korean War, earning two Purple Hearts. After that, Garner resumed his search for a career. “I think I had … over 50” jobs, he told Back Stage West writer Sarah Kuhna. “I worked at grocery stores, I worked at drug stores, I worked for the telephone company cutting trees. I worked for a chicken hatchery—don't ever do that. That's a terrible job.”
Back in 1945, one of Garner's Los Angeles jobs was as a gas-station attendant. He struck up a friendship with Paul Gregory, a regular customer who also toiled in a lowly job, at a nearby soda counter, but told Garner he planned to become a producer and agent. Years later, driving a van for his father's carpet-installation business, Garner saw Gregory's name emblazoned on office signage over a La Cienega Boulevard address. He stopped in to say congratulations and Gregory convinced him to try acting, offering him a role in a new play scheduled to preview at a Santa Barbara playhouse. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial was based on the acclaimed 1951 novel by Herman Wouk, with Henry Fonda in the lead role. Garner was cast as one of the six entirely silent Navy officers who serve as judges for the military tribunal, and he went with Fonda and the rest of the cast when the play ran on Broadway in early 1954.
In 1955 Garner met another influential talent-spotter, television writer Roy Huggins, while appearing in an episode of the ABC western Cheyenne. Warner Brothers, meanwhile, had inked a contract with Garner and placed him in some solid film roles, first as the sidekick to Marlon Brando in Sayonara, a 1957 Korean War film, and next as the lead in Darby's Rangers, a World War II action movie released a year later. Warner also had a television-production division, and Huggins pitched executives for a new period-dramedy series that would make the most of Garner's likable-rogue persona, which the actor seemed to effortlessly radiate when the cameras were rolling. This was Maverick, which debuted on the ABC network in September of 1957. Garner played Bret Maverick, a cardsharp and skilled con artist who finds greedy marks across several Plains states and riverboat gambling rooms in the late 19th century. The series was notable for upturning all the familiar tropes of the genre.
Garner had the first of two well-publicized battles with studio executives after a writers’ strike disrupted production on Maverick and Warner Brothers sued him for breach of contract. He countersued and won. After leaving Maverick—future Bond 007 actor Roger Moore was his ersatz replacement as cousin Beau Maverick—Garner made a surprisingly effortless transition to lead film roles for other studios. His range was impressive: he bantered with top-billed stars like Natalie Wood and Doris Day in frothy romantic comedies like Cash McCall and The Thrill of It All, but he was a directors’ choice for weightier roles, too. In 1962 he played the fiancé of Audrey Hepburn's character in The Children's Hour, about two teachers embroiled in a scandalous same-sex libel case, and he was one of the ringleaders of The Great Escape along with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. Consistently ranked by critics as one of the greatest cinematic tales set during World War II, this 1963 film was based on the true story of several British prisoners-of-war who engineered a daring break from a camp deep inside Nazi-occupied Poland.
Garner worked with director John Frankenheimer on the 1966 auto-racing drama Grand Prix and took up motor sports as a hobby. Cherokee Productions, the company he formed in the late 1960s, gave him a stake in some film and television projects, among them Support Your Local Sheriff!, a 1969 comedy film, and the ill-fated NBC series Nichols, which ran for a single season in 1971. Then came a fallow period for Garner as he sought more meaningful work than They Only Kill Their Masters, a 1972 mystery in which the alleged villain was a Doberman pinscher dog.
Maverick writer Roy Huggins persuaded Garner to return to television in a new series written specifically for him. Like the other Huggins show, The Rockford Files positioned itself firmly inside the framework of the most popular genre on television of the 1970s—the whodunit crime story featuring a brilliant and often iconoclastic private investigator—and gave the actor free reign to fully inhabit the character of Jim Rockford. It debuted on NBC in 1974 and paired Garner with veteran character actor Noah Beery, Jr. Garner's Rockford has spent time in prison after a wrongful conviction for armed robbery and lives in a beachfront mobile-home enclave in Malibu, a real location that remains one of the Los Angeles area's most curious real-estate anomalies. A comical answering machine message left for Rockford opens each hour-long episode and Garner's lead deploys street smarts, a wide range of contacts among cops and sketchy types, and evasive driving maneuvers to solve crimes and resolve wrongful prosecutions.
Garner played Jim Rockford for six seasons and won the 1977 Emmy Award for Best Actor, beating the stars of Baretta and Colombo, among the other contenders. The Friday-night staple “was a perfect framework for Garner's distinctive projection of craggy charm and canny cowardice,” declared longtime television critic Ken Tucker years later, writing for Grantland online. “Garner made sure the show had a colorful squawk and cynicism so that, once again, it subverted its genre rather than playing nice. A pre-Magnum, P.I. Tom Selleck popped up occasionally to inhabit Lance White, the kind of strutting, infallible peacock private-eye common on TV, the sort of impossible crime-solver whom a workaday schlub like Rockford disdained.”
Debilitated by years of stunt-related injuries, Garner asked for a reprieve in 1979 and, when NBC executives refused, walked off his own show once again. Again, a breach of contract suit was filed, Garner countersued, and the legal case spiraled into a long and contentious suit over fraudulent accounting practices used by the networks to arrive at the net profit number for a television series. Series leads like Garner typically negotiated a contract that gave them a cut of the net profit; in his case the amount was 37 percent, but Universal Television claimed that the show actually lost money. “The trouble with these companies—and I'm not just saying Universal—is they've got the money,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter years later. “And they're doing whatever they want to keep as much as they can. If you want it, you're going to have to come get it.” Garner again prevailed, this time forcing an out-of-court settlement reported to be $14 million.
In 1977, Garner was paired with actress Mariette Hartley as a cutely bantering fictional married couple for a long-running series of television commercials for Polaroid's line of instant cameras. The job allowed him to be selective about film and television roles, and he famously turned down the part later taken by Jack Nicholson in the 1983 Academy Award-winning weeper Terms of Endearment. Garner did return to the screen with Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1985 romcom Murphy's Romance costarring Sally Field.
Garner had a recurring role on the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter from 2003 to 2005. One of his last feature films was 2004's The Notebook, in which he played the older version of novelist Nicholas Sparks’ character opposite Gena Rowlands. Garner's own romance was one of Hollywood's most enduring marriages: he met single-parent Lois Clarke at a Democratic Party rally in 1956, and they wed just weeks later. He formally adopted Clarke's daughter Kimberly, and the couple also had daughter Greta “Gigi” Garner. In 2011 he cowrote an autobiography, The Garner Files: A Memoir, with Jon Winokur.
Garner's death at age 86 from a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 19, 2014, prompted an array of tributes from film and television veterans of his generation in addition to memorials from younger professionals. “I have no regrets,” the actor told PBS television host Charlie Rose, reflecting on the luck of a “dumb farm kid from Oklahoma” in a 2002 broadcast. “Nobody had anything during the Depression. And, you know, come to Hollywood, get a career and become famous, make some money, you know, have a wonderful family. What would I change? Nothing. I wouldn't change a thing.”
Back Stage West, January 20, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1994.
Vanity Fair, March 2005, p. 220.