James Garner of ‘Maverick,’ ‘Rockford Files,’ Dies at 86

Amiable film and television actor James Garner, who starred in popular television series “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” died Saturday at his home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. 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. Garner won two Emmys and racked up a total of 15 nominations. 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.

APPRECIATION: James Garner Gracefully Bore the Weight of Stardom

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.

He appeared in specials before landing a supporting role in “The Children’s Hour” with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn.

His roles in films got better: “Boys’ Night Out” and, especially, “The Great Escape” brought him his best notices. He said that he drew on his experience in the Korean War, during which he was the company scrounger, for the latter role.

For a time he seemed ready to inherit the aging Cary Grant’s romantic comedy leading man mantle with such films as “The Thrill of It All” (1963), “The Wheeler Dealers” and “Move Over Darling.” Arthur Hiller gave him a meatier assignment, in the satire “The Americanization of Emily,” opposite the then-red-hot Julie Andrews. He then nabbed the thriller “36 Hours” and a couple of indifferent comedies, “The Art of Love” and “A Man Could Get Killed.”

The films were now A-budget, but “Duel at Diablo,” “Mr. Buddwing” and “Grand Prix,” which gave him a yen for car racing, weren’t particularly memorable.

During this period he appeared in Westerns including “Hour of the Gun” (in which he played Wyatt Earp), comedy Western “Support Your Local Sheriff,” “They Only Kill Their Masters,” “Marlowe” and “Skin Game.”

But he really scored on TV, where, after the brief NBC Western series “Nichols” in 1971, he hit paydirt with comedic detective skein “The Rockford Files,” which ran from 1974-80 and won him an Emmy in 1977 and another four nominations.

Huggins teamed with Stephen J. Cannell for the detective series recycling many of the plots from “Maverick.” Many of Garner’s friends had recurring roles in the series, including Joe Santos and Stuart Margolin as his buddies. Margolin said at the time that Garner worked long shifts, did his own stunts and stayed to do off-camera lines for the other cast members. But his old injuries and pay disputes led Garner to call it quits even though the show drew high ratings on NBC.

He again essayed “Bret Maverick” for one season in 1981. But a bad back, lawsuits with MCA TV over “Rockford” syndication payments (he eventually settled, reportedly for several million dollars) and, eventually, heart surgery curtailed his ability to endure the rigors of a TV series.

He reteamed with Andrews in the Blake Edwards musical “Victor/Victoria” in 1982, and he landed a plum role opposite Sally Field in the comedy/romance “Murphy’s Romance” in 1985. He essayed an older Wyatt Earp in Edwards’ “Sunset” opposite Bruce Willis as Tom Mix and did the underwhelming “Fire in the Sky” in 1983. In 1994 he took a small role in the bigscreen version of “Maverick,” with Mel Gibson in the lead, giving the star a run for his money in the likability department.

In 1996 he starred as an ex-president opposite Jack Lemmon in “My Fellow Americans.” The best of his later work, however, came in television in such TV movie dramas as “Heartsounds” with Mary Tyler Moore in 1984, directed by Glen Jordan, who also guided him through “Promise” in 1986. In 1989 he was acclaimed for “My Name Is Bill W.” with James Woods. In the 1992 HBO film “Barbarians at the Gate,” the actor offered up a standout chewy performance. Quieter, but no less effective, was “Breathing Lessons” opposite Joanne Woodward.

His bigscreen career continued in the 2000s with the Clint Eastwood-helmed veteran astronaut comedy “Space Cowboys,” chick pic “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and 2004 hit tearjerker “The Notebook,” in which Garner and Gena Rowlands played the older versions of a couple portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

On the smallscreen, Garner recurred on the ABC comedy “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter” from 2003-05. He also voiced God for the short-lived NBC series “God, the Devil and Bob,” played the chief justice in CBS’ Supreme Court drama “First Monday” and portrayed Mark Twain in a 2002 Hallmark adaptation of Twain’s novel “Roughing It.”

Born James Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., he left high school to become a merchant seaman before moving to Los Angeles, enrolling at Hollywood High and then returning to Norman, where he joined the Oklahoma State National Guard.

He briefly went to work in his father’s carpeting business in Los Angeles until being called for duty in the Korean War. He served more than a year in the Korean peninsula and was awarded the Purple Heart before his discharge in 1952. He studied business administration at the U. of Oklahoma but left after a semester, ready to move towards acting.

Garner starred with Mariette Hartley in a series of noted commercials for Polaroid in the 1970s.

He won the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award in 2005.

Garner is survived by his wife, the former Lois Clarke, to whom he was married since 1956; daughter Greta “Gigi” Garner; and an adopted daughter, Kimberly, from Clarke’s first marriage.

 

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 109

Leave a Reply

109 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. tomy kay says:

    One of the best. He had character which is rare today…a genuine role model for young actors today.

  2. Courtland Ranker says:

    James Garner single handily put the Mazda RX-7 on the US map for Japan with his part in Mazda’s commercials. James Garner’s role in the movie Grand Prix was very much a big part of the gate draw for that movie, also Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Toshiro Mifune were nothing less than excellent, in fact I want to go on record as saying it was my favorite race car movie of all time.

  3. Courtland Ranker says:

    James Garner single handily put the Mazda RX-7 on the US map for Japan with his part in Mazda’s commercials. James Garner’s role in the movie Grand Prix was very much a big part of the gate draw for that movie.

  4. Stewart Lollar says:

    My condolences to his family. What a great man! Thankfully he left us so much to watch, re-watch, and treasure. My brother used to get me to sing the theme song of “Maverick” after we were put to bed.Thanks, Mr. Garner, for making the world a more joyful place.

  5. Aram Anthony says:

    I always enjoyed Mr. Garner’s work, but there’s another reason why I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Jimbo.

    Back in 1977, I was a 15-year-old skate rat living in Santa Monica. One of my favorite places to skate was Kenter Canyon Elementary in Brentwood. The trouble was, it was quite a trek to get there for the car-impaired.

    One day, I was standing on Kenter Ave., just across Sunset Blvd. with my thumb out, hoping for a lift up to the school. After a couple of minutes, a pickup truck turned up a street that broke off of Kenter Ave. and paralleled it, and stopped. The driver waved me over.

    When I got to the truck, I saw that the driver was James Garner. I got in and thanked him for stopping for me. He told me he enjoyed watching the “kids skate up at the school” and wished we had more places to ride.

    When we reached the school a couple of minutes later, Mr. Garner left me with a “have fun” and a “be careful.” And of course that million-dollar smile.

    I wasn’t the only skater Mr. Garner gave rides to. Other friends told me of their encounters with him, about how friendly he was. His kind encouragement even changed the life of at least one friend, by pointing him toward becoming a professional photographer.

    RIP Jim. Thank you for the lift. Your talent and generous spirit will be missed.

  6. Ovens says:

    I will miss “Ole Jimmy” and Rockford files is one of my favorite old shows. I’m sad to hear he died. Rest In Peace! James.

  7. susan verre says:

    jim rockford my name is susan verre i love you really a lot you are in my pray for you i love watched the rockford files i will have a wonderful dream about you love alwys susan verre . with my hreat for you look very handsom on the show is the rockford files love susan verre.

  8. Tony Powers says:

    Jim was my favorite actor of all time. Loved every one of his portrayals especially Jim Rockford and Maverick. So sad to lose him. Makes me feel so old to see all these wonderful old actors pass. Jim has filled many happy hours for me. His comic timing was second to none and what a fine actor! My sympathies to his wife and family. Love you JIm!

  9. I’ve always loved James Garner he was such a class act. My favorite movie was the Great Escape with Steve McQueen. Rest in peace my friend you made all look so easy :-)

  10. Judy says:

    Despite critics, James Garner was great in anything he did.
    “The Rockford Files” new and repeats were a must for Bill and myself.
    Now alone I look for any Garner movies or tv reruns to watch.
    I have the dvd of the Christmas made or tv story; “One Special Night” with Julie Andrews.
    I watch this at least twice every Christmas time and sometimes during year when there is nothing else
    I want to watch.
    Mr. Garner will be sorely missed by many. Regards to his family.

  11. Gary Grant says:

    A lot of enjoyment over the years. I was 16 when Maverick started and as kids we’d stay home and watch it at 6pm on Sunday nights then gather uptown to discuss that nights episode. I’ve seen every Rockford show more that once. He left the screen with The Notebook, what a way to go out. Thanks for all the good memories Jim.

  12. Roger says:

    I so enjoyed James Garner. I was an LA Cop when he was acting in “The Rockford Files” and his depiction of Los Angeles was spot on… good script, good acting. Just seemed like a class act and certainly stayed the course in his long marriage (that’s uncommon today). God Speed Jim!

  13. Jennifer says:

    Mr.Garner could do comedy and drama seamlessly. I loved his classic comedies with Doris Day as well as Rockford Files, etc. I’ve watched them when I was little with my mom and step dad as well as reruns with my own children. He was a Hollywood legend to me and I am sad that he is gone.

    • James Garner was a true gentleman. I grew up watching him in Maverick & the Rockford Files. My Uncle (who passed away 5 yrs.ago) played golf with him when he was in Munich. Mr. Garner was not playing well & his clubs payed for it. Unc said it was great! He was a true gentleman & will be missed by many.

  14. John Petta says:

    Growing up the cowboy,s were my role models mr garner was #1 i have been married for41 years seeing he has been married so long and so well loved i can only hope more kid,s would discover this real American man rip jimbo

  15. Paul Callanan says:

    I think James Garner was the best of the best. He always seemed fully absorbed into the character he was playing, and never seemed a grandstander on stage or off it. He made me think of my father i guess, though from what I remember, he couldn’t sing anywhere near as well as my dad, nor was Garner better looking. That aside, Garner was a gem, as capable in comedy, mystery and romance as he was in drama. I don’t think Hollywood ever knew how good he was. If I remember correctly, he was in the Americanization of Emily, which in retrospect was oscar worthy for him. I’m sorry he is gone, but thankful he was here.

  16. Suzanne Demming says:

    I think i will only be as sad of James Garner’s passing when Clint Eastwood goes. They are both men all men should aspire to be.

  17. Pigsy says:

    Television it makes life seem very very short. Yesterday he was Jim Rockford, and today he is an 86-year-old dead actor James Garner. Oh well James Garner, has gone I hope he had a good enjoyable life. Jim Rockford, is still as busy as ever with those U.S. criminals. Perhaps Mr James Garner, on his new adventures could say hello to Charles Bronson, for me who is still busy on my DVD as Paul Kersey, dealing with those criminals. Goodbye Mr Garner, happy new adventures.
    Yours sincerely,
    Manly kisses: XxX.

  18. Nonverbal Communication Analysis No. 2891: James Garner and …. Why was he so well liked?

    http://www.bodylanguagesuccess.com/2014/07/nonverbal-communication-analysis-no_6569.html

  19. Gail Cohen says:

    James Garner heard about the plight of African American sculpture Richard Barthe and gave him financial support. I wish I could have thanked him for doing that. He was much more than a good guy. Thank you James Garner!

  20. Phyllis Wright says:

    I am a child of the 50’s and grew up with Mr Garner on my television and on the big screen. Now I watch reruns with my grandkids, who have come to love him as I do. I will never miss Mr. Garner, he dwells lovingly in my remote…………….forever.

    • Mac Breck says:

      And he lives on in my DVD collection. Maybe one day they’ll release the rest of The Rockford Files TV movies:

      Friends and Foul Play (1996)
      Punishment and Crime (1996)
      Shootout at the Golden Pagoda (1997)
      and
      If It Bleeds, It Leads (1999).

  21. David Reaume says:

    The world is diminished by the lost of James. They didn’t mention the movie Grand Prix which car people enjoyed, Godspeed.

  22. carlos ze-dukes says:

    James Garner….was so likeable and natural on T.V. and Movies…his talent was unlimited …he deserves a Post Academy Award lifetime achievement award.for his family….we will always love Marick and the Rockford files…bless you in Heaven ZZ.

  23. Roy says:

    Moderately successful? What a piker the reviewer is. Grow the hell up, and
    recognize this wonderful actor for what he was…a wonderful actor. RIP, Mr. Gardner. I had the good fortune to meet you, and will not forget that.

  24. Jerry Stedman says:

    James you’ll be missed. In a day when Hollywood provides poor quality entertainment and passes it off as the latest and greatest … the quality of your onscreen work will not soon be replaced. There’s nothing like finishing strong and “The Note Book” and “the Gift” will always be cherished films for me. Rest in peace!

  25. Richard Natale does a wonderful hatchet job on the craft of an Iconic American actor. While other commentators here divide him as good or bad based on his politics. I loved him for the men he portrayed, if was evident he poured himself into each character. My favorite was when I was so young and impressionable and watched his interaction with Doris Day in “The Thrill of It All”.I felt his exasperation and his humor. Support you local films strongly reinforced his persona. Today a little bit of my life ended too. You will be missed James

  26. rship19 says:

    His balancing act in Robert Benton’s ‘Twilight’ (1998) alongside Paul Newman (Harry), Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon Reese Witherspoon, John Spencer, Margo Martindale, Liev Schreiber certainly merits notice.
    Ray Hoope (Garner): “Don’t you ever get tired of all the beautiful people, Harry? Doesn’t it ever bother you that they do whatever they want because there’re people like you and me who’ll clean up after them?”

  27. Will says:

    Well put Joshua f…and perhaps the superstar adjective is missing for his refusal to allow studios/executives to walk all over him. He would have been perfect as a Bonanza sibling. RIP.

  28. Sue Martinath says:

    One of my favorite actors, he will be missed. I loved all his movies especially “Victor/Victoria” and “Murphy’s Romance”.

  29. Glenn Day says:

    No criticism of Peter Falk, but imagine James Garner as Columbo. He would have brought a different personality to the part, and I think that personality would have clicked.

  30. James laumand says:

    He the best Buber one in Hollywood,I huge fan I loved dockyard files,I watch it all the time,I misse there no more legend left anymore Hollywood gone acting and movies are not good anymore I don’t see movies anymore I wish he lived longer I wished I get a autograph from him,but I wonder what was going on with him I have seen him long time on tv or movies.

  31. I liked him in Space Cowboys, its a shame he dies as Prez zero puts the last nail in the coffin of the space program

    • Suzanne Moore says:

      As a big fan of the space program – as was Jim Garner -I can promise you NASA is doing just fine. Much better than under Bush. Watch something besides Fox sometime.

  32. Diana Romano says:

    Born in 1955, I grew up enjoying almost every thing James Garner acted in. He made me feel like I’ve known him personally for years. He knew how to make every part he played in very real. For years he did commercials for polaroid with another actor by the name of Mariette Hartley. Their acting was so good, many believed they were married in real life. My thoughts and prayers to his family.

  33. kelly roberts says:

    Yeah, dork you can tell he’s a liberal: He stood up for his country and didn’t dodge the draft like Bush, Cheney and all the other right wing scum

    • Jerry Stedman says:

      Come on … really … can’t you let it go … show some respect and keep your comments about Jim Garner not the post of someone that doesn’t deserve a response!

  34. Mac Breck says:

    Dork, just a know-nothing, worthless troll. Has to be a special kind of low to post something like that here.

  35. Janice Harden Brisciano on facebook says:

    typed message but it disappeared. so try again.. I loved James Garner, great actor and seemed like a decent man. good personality and charm, good looking and talented, so funny in my fellow americans. we will miss a great entertainer for sure. thanks Variety for your article. where is the article for Peter O’toole another great actor kicked to the curb after his death? — Also Dork can kiss where I can’t and I don’t mean my elbow…

  36. Mike says:

    I lived in Malibu in the 1970s when James Garner starred in The Rockford Files. I remember seeing his trailer at Paradise Cove and his Pontiac Firebird parked next to it. I liked the everyman, anti-hero image Garner brought to the role of Rockford. I stil laugh when I watch reruns and see the book entitled “How to do Karate” or something like that with a Los Angeles County Public Library stamp on it lying on top of the nightstand next to his bed. Only Jim Rockford would do that, and that’s why I loved the show.

  37. Ken says:

    Favourite Garner flick? THE GREAT ESCAPE – the interplay between he and Donald Pleasance was touching.

  38. Don Miles says:

    Why is life so hard to let go of? Yo have to know someone like Jim and if you are lucky enough to, well then, you understand.

  39. Sheryl Smith says:

    I grew up with Maverick and developed a life long crush on James Garner. He did it all right, and gave show business a good name. He will be lost. I feel like I have lost an old boyfriend.

  40. Glenda says:

    james garner was a good actor. he was one of my favorites and he will be missed a lot our prayers and thought be with his wife and family

  41. Marsha Watson says:

    This man was a great actor . James Garner. Sir you will be so very, very missed!! There was not one movie that he was in that I didn’t like. Prayers go out to your family & friends. RIP

  42. william says:

    To get to know him read his autobiography. good stuff.

  43. Ric Mahurin says:

    What a great man and star.

    A lifelong Democrat, a talented actor with comedic chops and a very hard worker.

    I continue to watch The Rockford Files every week. It’s an incredible show, anchored by Garner’s performance and David Chase’s vision.

    Goodbye, Mr. Garner, Hollywood is a little lesser for your passing.

  44. Julie Giles says:

    They don’t make heroes like this anymore.

  45. M. F. Sibley says:

    James Garner was “Everyman”. He never put on airs, never thought he was better than anyone else, never went the Hollywood “route” and never but never felt the need to plaster himself all over the papers via scandals of the proportions that celebrities today seem to think will bolster their careers. No, Mr. Garner did it the old-fashioned way – pure talent and a personality that connected with the viewing public year after year, as evidenced by the tributes being paid to him here and elsewhere. You don’t get that kind of respect for nothing. I’ll miss his wit and incredible way of presenting a character for he wore each one like a second skin. My condolences to his family.

  46. Donna Reynolds says:

    Mr. Garner will be missed very much; he was truly an American icon, a gentleman, and wonderful actor who brought joy and laughter to people of all ages.

    While the story mentions “Support Your Local Sheriff” (1969) it neglected to mention its sequel, the thoroughly and outrageously hilarious “Support Your Local Gunfighter” (1971), which had a stellar cast that included Jack Elam, Suzanne Pleshette, Harry Morgan, and Chuck Connors, among others.

  47. He was filming at the ARCO Towers in LA ( for “Files”) and I got his autograph and a chat for a few minutes… I liked all of his films, and catch them on Turner Classic Movies when I can.

  48. Alton p gravitte says:

    He was a very good actor and a fine man

  49. mpzz says:

    It’s not true that “Maverick” ever became all about Garner’s character. His appearances alternated with those of Jack Kelly, who didn’t have a tenth of Garner’s charisma on screen. We used to groan when the show started and it was about Bart instead of Brett Maverick. The shows were diluted further when Roger Moore began appearing as Beau Maverick.

  50. I was a huge fan of the Rockford Files. RIP James Garner

More TV News from Variety

Loading