Obituary: James Garner, actor

James Garner: Actor whose much-loved easy-going characters belied a violent and abusive childhood. Picture: APJames Garner: Actor whose much-loved easy-going characters belied a violent and abusive childhood. Picture: AP
James Garner: Actor whose much-loved easy-going characters belied a violent and abusive childhood. Picture: AP
Born 7 April, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma. Died: 19 July, 2014, in Los Angeles, aged 86

James Garner parlayed rugged good looks and an easy-going charm into two hugely popular TV series that provided him with work for several decades. First, there was the gambler Bret Maverick in the western series Maverick in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Subsequently he played private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Garner also enjoyed a successful film career that included The Great Escape and Support Your Local Sheriff! and more recently Space Cowboys, in which he co-starred with Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones as pensioners recalled to active service to repair an old Cold War satellite.

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Garner and his best-known characters never seemed to take life too seriously, preferring to resolve problems with guile and humour rather than resorting to violence. But the on-screen image belied a difficult and abusive upbringing, which culminated in Garner attempting to strangle his stepmother.

His stepmother and father walked out on the children in fairly quick succession, leaving Garner to make his own way in the world at 14. In his memoirs The Garner Files, he wrote: “I’ve been on the wrong end of violence, and I’ve done violence myself…I refuse to glorify violence in my movie and television roles. The characters I’ve played, especially Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, almost never use a gun, and they always try to use their wits instead of their fists.”

Lois Garner, to whom he was married for 58 years, said: “Jimmy is very close to his characters. That’s the face he wants the world to see – the man who doesn’t quite fit into any mould, but is loved.

“The first thing I noticed about Jim was how funny he was. But Jim is a rather complicated man and is covering up lots of hurt.”

He was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1928. The youngest of three boys, he was nicknamed Little Bum. He had German forebears, but was also a quarter Cherokee. His father ran a general store in the middle of nowhere. Garner’s mother died when he was four and he worked in the store from the age of six, but business was slow and life hard.

The store burned down when he was seven and he admits in his autobiography that it may well have been his father who did it. Garner lived with grandparents before being reunited with his father and his new wife, who beat Garner and it was later alleged had sex with one of the other boys, though he was only about ten at the time.

She disliked Garner, forced him to wear a dress and made everyone call him Louise. “Now they’d put that woman in jail for what she did to us,” he wrote. “But in those days nobody cared.”

Garner worked as a dish-washer, lumberjack, docker, builder and merchant seaman and served in the US army during the Korean War. He was wounded twice, once with shrapnel and once when he was shot in the buttocks by an American fighter plane as he dived for cover.

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He also did some work as a model, appeared in television commercials and that led to small acting roles and a contract with Warner Brothers in the 1950s. The studio shortened his name and his brother Jack also became an actor and used the name Garner.

In 1957 he played an officer in the Marlon Brando film Sayonara and got what was to prove his big break when he was cast as the poker player Maverick. It was one of dozens of western series that were being churned out at the time and it was to prove one of the most popular.

As it developed, Maverick was moulded round Garner, though Warners introduced a second Maverick brother called Bart, played by Jack Kelly, so they could alternate the lead characters and have two teams filming at once. Roger Moore subsequently came on board as cousin Beau Maverick. Garner quit in 1960 and although Maverick continued, it was never the same without him.

In the 1960s Garner concentrated on films and in The Great Escape he was Flight Lt Robert Hendley, aka “The Scrounger”, an American in the RAF. Garner shared top billing with Steve McQueen, with the producers aiming to maximise returns in the US, though the prominence of the fictional American characters caused controversy.

Garner went on to star in Grand Prix – he was a motor racing fan and at one time owned his own team; Hour of the Gun – playing Wyatt Earp; the comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff! and Marlowe, playing Raymond Chandler’s private detective.

Garner had his own film company called Cherokee Productions, which also made The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford is a private detective who is freed from prison after serving time for a crime he did not commit. He sets up a private detective agency specialising in miscarriages of justice. Garner played Rockford in more than 100 episodes and TV movie specials.

He won an Emmy for The Rockford Files in 1977, and a second for the one-off drama Promise in 1987. He was also nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for the romantic comedy Murphy’s Romance, with Sally Field, in 1986.

Garner reprised the character of Bret Maverick when the show was revived in the 1980s and he played a character called Zane Cooper, in a 1994 film version, with Mel Gibson as Maverick. In the end, however, it is revealed that Cooper is really Maverick Senior.

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Garner had a series of operations on his knees over many years and in 1988 he had quintuple heart bypass surgery. Between 2002 and 2005 Garner played a recurring character in the television comedy series 8 Simple Rules.

He is survived by his wife Lois and their daughter Gigi. He met Lois when they were campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and they married two weeks later.

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