US TV star James Garner dies at 86

James Garner, pictured in the year 2000. Picture: Getty
James Garner, pictured in the year 2000. Picture: Getty
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HE WAS a gun-slinging card sharp, a prisoner of war camp scrounger in The Great Escape and a private eye who inspired a generation of young viewers to imagine that the height of success was to live in a rented trailer by the ocean.

James Garner, the American star of the hit television series The Rockford Files and Maverick and films including The Great Escape, has died aged 86. The actor, who had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in 2008, was found dead at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

A spokesman for the West LA Division of the Los Angeles Police Department said: “Mr Garner died of natural causes.”

As the laconic private investigator Jim Rockford, he would have immediately distrusted whatever the LAPD reported, then launched his own inquiries which usually turned up an unlikely suspect.

The Rockford Files, in which his character lived in a rented trailer by the side of a pier, ran for seven years in the 1970s and 122 episodes and won him an Emmy. He later returned to the character in the 1990s to star in eight Rockford Files TV movies.

Yet it was as the poker playing cowboy Bret Maverick that he first won the hearts of TV audiences around the world. The hit series ran from 1957 to 1962 at which point the actor quit in a dispute over fees.

He later returned to the role for another 18 episodes from 1981 to 1982.

After quitting Maverick, he went on to appear in 1963’s The Great Escape as Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley, an American in the RAF, and the camp’s “scrounger” who managed to trade Red Cross chocolate and condensed milk for a camera, clothes and identity cards.

Garner said he was able to draw on his own experiences as a scrounger while serving in the American army during the Korean War.

He was injured in 1951 but he had to wait until 1983 to receive his medal, the Purple Heart.

In an interview in 2002, he said of the film’s director: “John [Sturges] was a great director and editor and he got the most out of his actors. I don’t know how he did that, I think it was just a pat on the back and that sort of thing.”

He also admitted that he was “always nervous” when acting, adding: “Keeps me on my toes. I’ve never been that confident, I don’t have the background in acting. Some people do, they went to all these classes. A lot of people say you have to have this foundation, you have to have all the great teachers and all the great theory. I don’t think so.

“When I was 25 when I first started acting I’d been around the world a little bit. I’d travelled in a lot of different societies. I felt I knew as much as any of these actors who’d been to acting school.”

He also received an Oscar nomination for his work opposite Sally Field in the 1985 feature comedy, Murphy’s Romance.

Garner said his favourite role was as the cowardly US soldier who falls for Julie Andrews before being sent on a dangerous wartime mission in the 1964 film The Americanization of Emily. He teamed up with Andrews again in the 1982 film Victor/Victoria.

He returned to the big screen in 2000 in Clint Eastwood’s astronaut adventure Space Cowboys and two years later in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

In a spate of late-career TV work, Garner played a recurring role as a hospital chief executive on Chicago Hope in 2000 and starred as a conservative supreme court chief justice in the short-lived 2002 series First Monday.

In 2005, he was given a Screen Actor’s Guild lifetime achievement award. Garner married the actress Lois Clarke in 1956. They had two daughters, Kimberly from her previous marriage, and their daughter Greta.