James Garner Dies at 86
By Richard Natale
Amiable actor James Garner, whose moderately successful film career was eclipsed by two extraordinarily popular television series, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” has died, according to reports. He was 86.
Like many popular leading men of Hollywood’s heyday, Garner boasted all-American good looks and a winning personality that carried him through comedy and drama alike. He was one of the first of TV’s leading men to cross over into films in the ’60s with such popular movies as “The Thrill of It All” and “The Americanization of Emily.” But he had his greatest impact in television, first on “Maverick” in the ’50s and then in the ’70s on “The Rockford Files,” for which he won an Emmy in 1977. He later appeared in several quality telepics including “Promise,” “My Name Is Bill W.” and “Barbarians at the Gate,” as well as the occasional strong feature such as “Victor/Victoria” and “Murphy’s Romance,” for which he captured his sole Oscar nomination for lead actor.
Garner won two Emmys and racked up a total of 15 nominations.
Garner found his way to showbiz through a friend, theater producer Paul Gregory: He was employed cueing actor Lloyd Nolan during rehearsals of the Broadway-bound “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” Garner eventually copped a nonspeaking role in the 1954 production, where, he said, he closely studied the play’s star, Henry Fonda. After studying with Herbert Berghof, Garner landed a role in the touring production of “Caine.”
Back in Los Angeles in 1955, he secured bit parts in the TV series “Cheyenne.” Impressed, Warner Bros. gave him a screen test and a contract at $200 a week. He paid his dues in supporting roles in “Towards the Unknown,” “The Girl He Left Behind” and “Shootout at Medicine Bend” as well as some TV assignments.
He was first really noticeable in a role as Marlon Brando’s pal in “Sayonara,” after which he was assigned a supporting role in “Darby’s Rangers.” When “Darby’s” lead Charlton Heston walked off the film, Garner inherited his first starring role, but reviews were mixed.
The real boost to his career came in a role now indelibly associated with him, that of Bret Maverick in the comedic Western that ABC debuted in 1957; the role and the series fit his wry personality like a glove. Originally the story was to alternate between the Maverick brothers played by Garner and Jack Kelly, but “Maverick” quickly became all about Garner’s character, who used his wits to get out of trouble. Other actors revolved in and out including Clint Eastwood as a vicious gunfighter. “Maverick” led to a long relationship between Garner and its creator, Roy Huggins. The actor stayed with the series until 1960, when he quit over a dispute with Warners.
“I’m playing me,” Garner said about the role. “Bret Maverick is lazy: I’m lazy. And I like being lazy.”
Lazy or not, the actor shared the Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer in 1958 and earned his first Emmy nomination in 1959 for “Maverick.”
In the meantime, Warners was serving him frustrating fare like “Up Periscope” and “Cash McCall.” Taking advantage of a suspension during the Writers Guild strike of 1960, Garner sued Warners for breach of contract — and won — allowing him to be a free agent and demand more for his services.