James Garner: Remembering the Reluctant Hero

James Garner: Remembering the Reluctant HeroHis masculine, ingratiating persona, combined with an approach to his craft that was deceptive in its seeming ease, made Academy Award nominee James Garner, who died this weekend at the age of 86, a small-screen favorite in the 1950s, a big-screen star in the ’60s, and an ever-welcome performing presence in both TV and movies over the decades that followed. Born the son of a carpet layer in Norman, Oklahoma in 1928, James Bumgarner lived a peripatetic adolescence, joining the Merchant Marines at 16, and then following his father at his Los Angeles worksite to continue his high school education. While attending Hollywood High, he got a gig as a Jantzen swimsuit model; later he returned to Norman to finish his schooling. A stint in the Army followed, where he received two Purple Hearts for action in Korea.

His career path was set in 1954 when he landed a non-speaking role during the Broadway run of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” starring Henry Fonda. Now bitten by the acting bug, commercials started coming his way, followed by regular TV assignments and supporting roles in such movies as Towards the Unknown (his 1956 debut), Sayonara, and Darby’s Rangers (along with a studio-made name shortening to “Garner” which took the actor by surprise).

James GarnerThe star-making opportunity came in 1957 when James was cast in TV’s irreverent western action-comedy Maverick. The always-calculating, often-cowardly itinerant cardsharp Bret Maverick was unlike any of the stalwart sagebrush series heroes of the era, and Garner was a hit for three seasons until walking in a salary dispute with Warners.

THRILL OF IT ALLBy that time, the movies beckoned, and Garner was a dominant Hollywood fixture over the first half of the ’60s. High points included the title role in Cash McCall; opposite Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour; as “the Scrounger” in The Great Escape; alongside Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Emily. He moved effortlessly between comic and serious roles, co-starring with Doris Day in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, then getting behind the wheel for the action/drama Grand Prix. The latter half of the decade, with a few exceptions (Support Your Local Sheriff, another Western send-up), was marked by chancier efforts that received greater critical than public response: Mister Buddwing, Hour of the Gun (as Wyatt Earp), and the private eye thriller Marlowe among them.

Into the ’70s, Garner began drifting back to series TV, with the short-lived action/comedy Nichols being followed by a much more successful run with The Rockford Files. The adventures of anti-authoritarian, frequently assaulted private eye Jim Rockford were a solid favorite over the show’s 1974-80 run, which Garner pulled the plug on over the role’s physical demands. A different small-screen role that audiences loved during this time was the series of commercials that he made with actress Mariette Harley for Polaroid cameras; the couple’s playful banter seemed so natural and real that many viewers thought Garner and Hartley were married in real life (they weren’t; he and wife Lois would have celebrated their 58th anniversary this August).

VICTOR VICTORIAThe 1980s were marked by a big-screen resurgence, including Victor/Victoria (opposite his old co-star Andrews), the action/comedy Tank, and alongside Sally Field in 1985’s Murphy’s Romance, which garnered (sorry) him a Best Actor Oscar nomination; acclaimed made-for-TV movies, including Heartsounds,  My Name Is Bill W. and an Emmy-winning turn in Promise; and a return to the role of Bret Maverick in a short-lived 1981-82 series revival. He reprised his performance of Wyatt Earp, opposite Bruce Willis as Tom Mix, in 1988’s Sunset.

SPACE COWBOYSOutside of 1996’s Presidential comedy My Fellow Americans, his film roles in the ’90s were primarily in support (including a role in the 1994 big-screen revamping of Maverick, with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster), while the heralded telefilms continued (Barbarians at the Gate, Decoration Day, Breathing Lessons and a string of Rockford Files reunion features). The actor was busy in series TV at the same time, with everything from voice work in the short-lived animated program God, the Devil and Bob to a stint as the father-in-law on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules, joining the household after series star John Ritter’s sudden death. Garner won acclaim with his co-starring performance alongside Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and director Clint Eastwood in 2000’s Space Cowboys and a supporting turn in the 2004 Nicholas Sparks melodrama The Notebook, with his final screen appearance coming in 2006 with the drama The Ultimate Gift.

To read about Garner’s 2011 autobiography, The Garner Files, click here.

To read a guest blogger’s review of The Americanization of Emily, click here.

To vote for your favorite 1960s film performance by Garner, click here.

  • Jeffry Heise

    One small correction-his Oscar nomination for MURPHY’S ROMANCE was for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor.

    • Gary Cahall

      My fault, Jeffry, and thanks for noticing it. That’s what happens when you edit someone’s work and add a bit of info to “improve” it.

      • Jeffry Heise

        No problem-have made my share of errors in postings online and I always try to be as diplomatic as I can be in making corrections. Nice piece, by the way.

  • Don Hall

    James Garner was one of the nicest guys I ever met.
    So long my friend, you will be missed.

  • akentg

    This is the film that Garner should have received his Oscar nomination. One of the top performances of that time.

  • ganderson

    Who says ‘nice guys finish last’? Certainly didn’t apply to James Garner. He’s been one of my favorite actors and I’ve always liked his style. I was channel surfing a month or so ago and came across ‘Move Over Darling’ in which Garner played opposite Doris Day in a screw-ball romantic comedy – I thought at the time, what a great guy and a great screen personality. I’ve thought a lot over recent years about actors who always seem to play themselves in whatever role they’re in. This might include John Wayne, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Charleton Heston, plus a bunch of modern actors. I guess the list might also include James Garner, as he rarely played against type, and I’ve come to think that there’s nothing at all wrong about that. I suppose in Garner’s case it probably reflected much of his own personality – if so, I would have liked to have him as a friend. I guess I’ll go watch ‘Support Your Local Sheriff.’

  • Alfie

    This good man was a true son of Oklahoma, and we will truly miss him. He remained a true gentleman, despite his involvement in Hollywood and stardom. There will never be another James Garner.

  • Blair Kramer

    “THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY” isn’t just Garner’s best film. It’s one of the best comedies of all time. But it’s a comedy with a biting message. There’s just one thing where World War II is concerned. The anti-war message of that film, set during that particular war, just doesn’t ring true. After all… It’s not as though England or the United States had any choice in the matter of fighting that war. After all is said and done, the two nations were very noble in the fighting and winning of World War II.

    • williamsommerwerck

      I don’t see “Emily” as an anti-war film, per se. Garner’s little Chayefsky lecture says that people pointlessly sentimentalize warfare, but there’s nothing wrong with dying, if it’s for a good reason.

  • bornagain710


  • Bryan Ruffin

    I would hate to have to pick only one movie in any genre as my favorite, when it comes to James Garner movies. I have enjoyed so many! Victor/Voctoria…..okay one that isn’t on that list. I think the re-make of Maverick has to be pure genuis! I mean, come on….. The man played Pappy! I loved that!!
    I would love to say that I will miss him, but, in reality……he is still very much alive, still funny, still acting. He has a very prominate place in my movie collection

  • Jan

    James Garner was one in a million – nice, good actor and a gentleman. He will be missed in that we won’t see him in any new movies. One of the movies I did not see listed above was ’36 hours’ which the critics did not seem to like but I did. My favorite, let met see, that would be Victor/Victoria, or how about Space Cowboys, no – Duel at Diablo, on second thought I really love Murphy’s Romance. Did a true Garner fan ever really see one they did not like? Not me. You will always be with us Mr. Garner because your wonderful movies will live on.

  • mike

    His best roles were Darby’s Rangers when younger and opposite Bruce Willis in Sunset where he played Wyatt Earp. His style was superb! And he will be missed!

  • wade

    nearly everything he did in the movies was good entertainment

  • williamsommerwerck

    It’s tempting to call Bret Maverick (and other roles) “professional cowards”, but that’s unfair. They were acutely aware of the odds (as a card player would have to be), and didn’t take chances when the odds were against them.

    It’s unfortunate that the wretched “Maverick” movie has Bret’s son calling himself a coward.

  • Johnny Sherman

    “The Rockford Files” is one of my three favorite tv series, along with too many movies to mention. Jimbo’s autobiography details the violence of his youth, but his upbringing didn’t mar the rest of his life. Garner was respected by cast and crew members alike, whom he treated as equals. He received the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, telling his fellow actors, ” I don’t know if I deserve this award, but, please, if, just for tonight, you’ll forgive me if I act like I do.”

  • John Fraraccio

    An actor who projected coolness even when emotion was called for by the role…and it didn’t even look like he had to work at it.

  • pocroc

    I’m so old I can remember Garner from Maverick days. I knew then the guy brought a whole new attitude to the craft. Americanization of Emily, his best work.

  • hiram

    He did a lot of good work, making it look easy. But the title character in DARBY’S RANGERS i not a “supporting role.”

  • Tom

    ALWAYS a gentleman, always a class act, and ALWAYS ALWAYS a pleasure to watch!

  • Thomas Majewski

    Always liked his movies and TV shows.

  • roger lynn

    just a fun wonderful actor,,loved his film the pink jungle why it is not on dvd is beyond em as art of love,.,.release these great films,,,,,,R*I*P* Mr Garner,,,,you will always be a class act and will never be forgotten

  • McVee

    Garner did a fantastic job as Captain Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtry’s “Streets of Laredo” in the mid 90’s. He was born to be in Westerns and with his passing that genre passes a little too.

  • tim “blackie” kenneally

    I’m not the biggest james garner fan by any stretch. I did like select westerns he made with “a man called sledge” his best. “duel at diablo” was good also and, of course, streets of Laredo” I beg to differ with folks who liked “darby’s rangers”; I found boring and hardly any action. he was training the whole movie I thought. fave actor stu Whitman brought me to it. “maverick” was o.k. but my faves were gunsmoke, the rifleman, Cimarron strip and Cheyenne.

  • WDPjr

    One of Garner’s movies that isn’t much mentioned is “36 Hours”. It’s a WWII movie but does not have any big action scenes. Now, I don’t say this is a great movie. But it is pretty good, a hidden gem I thought. If you are a Garner fan and you have not heard of it, you should watch it. I found it in a DVD collection I bought years ago that included other war dramas that are nearly forgotten now (such as Command Decision, The Hill, and others).

    • tim “blackie” kenneally

      the best thing about that movie was rod taylor, I truly believe. good ww2 spy drama.