One of the most famous, beloved and iconic stars of TV and the big screen has been lost. James Garner, star of such classic television series as The Rockford Files and Maverick and known for his roles in movies like Murphy’s Romance, The Great Escape and Space Cowboys has passed away at the age of 86.
THR reports that Garner was found Saturday evening by Los Angeles police, dead in his home in Brentwood, California, of apparently natural causes. Garner’s charming, genial presence always seemed to immediately improve whatever he turned up in, from his role as a suspicious police lieutenant in the mostly forgettable 1993 alien abduction flick Fire in the Sky to his key turn as the romantic old codger in The Notebook.
He will be forever remembered for his classic leading roles in the TV series Maverick and The Rockford Files, but he was also nominated for an Oscar for his performance opposite Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance and was part of a legendary ensemble in the classic World World II POW drama The Great Escape. There was no one else like James Garner, and he will be sorely missed by fans around the world.
Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, Garner was the son of Weldon Bumgarner, a carpet layer, and Mildred Scott. His mother was of Cherokee descent and died when Garner was five years old. Garner and his older brothers, the actor Jack Garner (who appeared in many of his younger brother’s projects) and school administrator Charles Bumgarner – both deceased – lived with relatives after their mother’s death until 1934, when their father married their stepmother, Wilma.
By all accounts, the boys hated their stepmother, with Jack Garner once observing that “She was a damn no-good woman.” Garner was evidently once punished by her by being forced to wear a dress in public, which resulted in a knock-down, drag-out fight, and which ended that marriage.
Garner joined the Merchant Marines toward the end of World War II and eventually served in the Korean War in the Army. He was wounded twice (once in the buttocks) and was awarded two Purple Hearts for the injuries. After his honorable discharge, Garner attended the University of Oklahoma.
His first role was a non-speaking part in a Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, which was directed by the great Charles Laughton and starred Henry Fonda. Garner said the experience taught him to listen as an actor, rather than waiting for his chance to speak. He moved to television commercials and small parts on series like the Western Cheyenne before receiving his big break in the late 1950s as the titular gambler and con man in Maverick.
As Bret Maverick, Garner played a sort of anti-gunfighter, a cardsharp who preferred talking his way out of trouble (after often talking his way into trouble in the first place). The show was a hit, running from 1957-1960 with Garner in the lead, and was remembered fondly enough into the ’90s, when director Richard Donner and screenwriter William Goldman updated Maverick for the big screen in 1994 with Mel Gibson in the role, and Garner co-starring.
Maverick paved the way for his successful film career in the 1960s. He starred with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour, co-starred with Doris Day in the light comedies Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of it All, joined Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough for the classic The Great Escape, and played legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun.
After a short-lived series called Nichols, Garner landed the iconic role of ramshackle private eye Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974-1980, making him a star for a whole new generation. The brainchild of producer Roy Huggins, the show was actually an attempt to remake Maverick as a modern-day private investigator, and a number of plots from the older show were re-used in some form. Garner won an Emmy for the role in 1977.
Years of doing his own stunts and working long hours to appear off-camera with other actors (rare for a leading man in a series like that) took their toll and Garner was forced to leave the show in 1980. He was later involved in at least two ongoing lawsuits with Universal over The Rockford Files.
Garner was nominated for Best Actor for Murphy’s Romance for his role as a free-thinking small-town pharmacist, and appeared in a number of well-regarded TV movies in the ’80s, including the HBO movie Barbarian at the Gate, playing multi-millionaire F. Ross Johnson in the story of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco.
In his later years, Garner’s presence proved unfailingly welcome, such as his role as the older version of hopeless romantic Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, appearing on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules following the death of John Ritter, reprising the role of Jim Rockford for a series of TV movies in the ’90s, teaming up with Jack Lemmon to play two former U.S. presidents on the run in the comedy My Fellow Americans, and co-starring as an elderly astronaut alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys.
Garner continued to work up until just a few years ago, voicing the wizard Shazam in DC Showcase Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Plans to remake The Rockford Files for film or television have persisted for years, but continually lack a leading man of Garner’s charm and magnetism.
James Garner is survived by his wife of 58 years, Lois Clarke and their daughter Greta Garner. All of us here at Screen Rant wish to express our deepest condolences to Garner’s family, friends and fans. The world has lost one of the last of the great screen stars.
R.I.P. James Garner: April 7, 1928 – July 19, 2014