James Garner: One All-American Actor Everyone Loved
James Garner was a purely American actor.
You would never think to call him a thespian, or imagine him playing Hamlet -- or, getting old, King Lear.
Garner was a movie star, a television star, and in both venues, he often and famously and most memorably played the hero as anti-hero, or the anti-hero as hero. He was also a natural—his most famous anti-hero heroics were done in such a way that he hardly seemed to be acting at all. He inhabited the leads in “Maverick” (for three seasons) and, later in his life, the hero of “The Rockford Files” with a combination of elan and ease that it made him look almost lazy. In his starring movie roles, he ranged quite a bit further, but that casual comic style stayed with him through several romantic comedies with Doris Day—taking over where Rock Hudson had left off.
Garner died July 19 at the end of a long career and a full life, during which he carried his movie and television personas with him, not like baggage, but like a coat you could dig into to find reminders of his screen life.
He led a life, and it took him a while to become who he was, which was, originally, a fella by the name James Scott Bumgarner, born in Norman, Oklahoma, the home of the University of Oklahoma and “sooner boomer” football mania, a place you could stare across the flat landscape and feel the breath of next door neighbors Missouri and Texas. He did not initially dream of becoming an actor and instead went from job to job, got into the Merchant Marine and fought in Korea, and awarded two purple hearts.
A friend encouraged him to get into theater, from which he started getting small parts in films like “Sayanora” and a bigger part in “Darby’s Rangers,” a World War II, small-scale epic, in a part turned down by Charlton Heston.
But it was the “Maverick” series which made a star out of Garner—although he stayed only for three years—and in a way branded him. The series—which debuted in a time when the so-called adult westerns were king on network television—featured Garner (and later a brother played by Jack Kelly), as a slick, fancy-shirt, black hat, black jacket, gambler, who avoided conflict at all cost, not to mention heroics. Bret Maverick was catnip for ladies, often got in trouble, even when he would admit he was a coward, but somehow, kicking and screaming and very reluctantly was often the hero. He was the opposite of James Arness’s Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke." Imagine the husky, slow-moving Arness playing Bret Maverick.
This aversion to violence made Maverick a convincing anti-hero, even when he resorted to violence. It was a kind of style you would often find in other Garner roles—“Support Your Local Sheriff,” a comedy western which was great fun, with the wonderful Jack Elam as his sidekick and, most convincingly, “The Americanization of Emily,” a World War II story, cynical and slick, in which he played an American officer who did not want to be sent to the combat zone. The parts seemed to suit Garner or he suited them. He played men who appeared strong but could dance around conflict—and commitment in the romantic comedy version—with ruggedness and verve.
Every now and then, the hidden fire and flame underneath came out as a form of obsession, a quality he shared with another well-liked star, James Stewart. He could play the all-American hero, influenced by obsession, Wyatt Earp on a killing spree in “Hour of the Gun,” the anti-hero of “Duel at Diablo” or “Mister Buddwing”.
“The Rockford Files,” another long-running series (six years), brought Garner back to television and another huge success, although he was injured in the course of playing a private eye several times and suffered mental stress in a law suit over net profits.
Although he could wear a suit and tie almost as well as Cary Grant, he was at heart a heartland kind of guy. He would continue to work in his later years—“Space Cowboys”, a popular quasi-comic story about aging astronauts with Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones, and “Murphy’s Romance,” playing a widower opposite Sally Field, a role for which he got an Oscar nomination, and the title of greatest kisser by his co-star.
James Garner, American actor, lived in Brentwood, Calif., and was 86.