James Garner, 1928-2014

James GarnerWith a career that has spanned over fifty years, James Garner thrilled audiences with his combination of tough guy attitude and easy charm.  He has succeeded  in both feature films and television, gaining new fans with each decade.

Born James Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma in 1928, he was sent to live with relatives after his mother died.  Returning home, he found living with his stepmother to be unbearable (he has spoke often of the abusive relationship).  At the age of sixteen he joined the Merchant Marines, followed by a stint in the National Guard and then the Army during the Korean War.  He was awarded two Purple Hearts for injuries in the line of duty.

During high school, the athletic Garner modeled swimsuits which led to television commercials and acting roles.  At this time, a studio executive shortened his name from “Bumgarner” to “Garner”.

James Garner was then cast in his first famous series, Maverick (1957-1960).  Starring as professional gambler Bret Maverick, Garner added a tough of comedy to the Western series.  When production continually fell behind schedule, Warner Bros. added Jack Kelly as Bret’s brother Bart Maverick to alternate the lead role.

After leaving the series, Garner’s film career took off with lead roles in The Children’s Hour (1962)co-starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, The Thrill of it All (1963)and Move Over, Darling (1963)both with Doris Day, The Great Escape (1963) co-starring Steve McQueen, and Grand Prix (1966) with led to Garner’s love of racing, and Support Your Local Sheriff (1969).

He has often said his favorite role was Lt. Commander Charlie Madison in The Americanization of Emily (1964) as a cynical adjutant to an admiral in 1944 London.  His wheeling and dealing hinders his romance with a motor pool driver played by Julie Andrews.  This dark comedy was considered controversial at the time for its anti-war stance.

James Garner returned to television in the short-lived series Nichols in 1971, but found greater success in The Rockford Files (1974-1980) as Jim Rockford as wisecracking private detective.  Much as Maverick poked fun at other popular TV Westerns at the time, The Rockford Files presented a worn out, not very heroic private eye.

Afterward, Garner kept busy in both television and feature films.  He starred in Bret Maverick (1981-1982) in an attempt to revive the popular character.  Garner reunited with Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982) and received his only Oscar nomination in Murphy’s Romance (1985) as a small town druggist in love with a younger divorcee played by Sally Field.  In 1994 he played Marshal Zane Cooper in the big-screen version of Maverick, opposite Mel Gibson as the title character.  He won acclaim in his role as Duke in The Notebook (2004).

James Garner has been inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame and is honored by a statue of his likeness in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma.  At the time of his death, Garner was married to Lois Feisman Clarke…a marriage that lasted 57 years.

Do you have a favorite James Garner performance?

  • Donna

    I’ve always loved James Garner and was saddened to hear of his death. It’s his combination of rugged handsomeness and cynical humor that attracted me. While I probably remember him best in The Rockford Files, I also liked My Fellow Americans and, I think it was called Tank, with C. Thomas Howell.