His 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).
The 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.
By 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).
The 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.
Outside 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.