Monday, July 21, 2014

James Garner - An American Legend - The Original Maverick

Today we pause to take note of the passing of an American Legend, a Western Icon, veteran actor James Garner passed away of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, July 19th, 2014. He was 86 years of age.

He was born James Scott Bumgarner, some references say, Baumgarner, in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 7th, 1928. His paternal grandfather had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and was later shot to death by the son of a widow with whom he’d been having an affair. His maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee. James Garner would later name his film production company Cherokee Productions in honor of his Cherokee ancestry.

His first home was the back of a small store that his father, Weldon, known as Bill, ran in the nearby town of Denver. His mother, Mildred, died when he was 4 years of age. Then when he was 7, the store burned down and his father left to find work in California leaving James and his two older brothers to be raised by relatives. No, having your father go off to find work was not at all unusual during the Great Depression.

When his father remarried, the family reunited, but James’s stepmother was abusive and he left home at age 14. He said in his memoir, after a violent episode at home, he finally had enough of being beaten and left for good. From that experience, James Garner developed a lifelong sympathy for the underdog.

"I cannot stand to see little people picked on by big people," he said. "If a director starts abusing people, I'll just jump in."

Making his way back to Oklahoma. He worked in Oklahoma, Texas, and later Los Angeles where his father finally settled. On his own after the age of 14, he drifted from job to job working as a telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, even a gas station attendant.

One job he had was as a male model for a swimsuit company. While that was his first on-camera job, in a Jantzen swimsuit ad, it was something he later regretted saying, "Ever since I did that darn ad, I've hated having my picture taken." While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he befriended a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a "soda jerk."  Gregory wanted to be a talent agent, and later he would play a big part in Mr. Garner's future.

After briefly attending Hollywood High School, he returned to Norman where he played football and basketball, to finish. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, he was drafted. He served in the Army in Korea where he was wounded in action twice. He received two Purple Hearts.

"I wasn't a hero," he said modestly. "I just got in the way a lot."

After leaving the Army, like many veterans, he did whatever it took to make an honest dollar. And yes, even with bad knees from Korea, he ended up working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon that would all change. It was luck that got him into acting, he claimed later.

The story goes that he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign which read Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building. On a whim, Mr. Garner, pulled in to see if that was indeed his friend from back home.

Mr. Gregory was by then an agent and a theatrical producer hired him for a non-speaking part in his production of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which starred Henry Fonda, John Hodiak, and Lloyd Nolan. It opened in Santa Barbara and toured the country before going to Broadway, where it opened in January 1954 and ran for 415 performances. Mr. Garner said he learned to act from running lines with the stars and watching them perform, especially Henry Fonda.

"I swiped practically all my acting style from him," he once said.

Mr. Garner claimed to have stage fright and no desire to act in the theater, yet he later played Lieutenant Maryk (the John Hodiak role) in a touring company of the play that starred Charles Laughton, but afterward would almost never appear onstage again. Still, it was the serendipitous stop on La Cienega that changed his life. One that he himself admitted to.

"The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office," he wrote in his biography The Garner Files.

Mr. Garner’s first actual Hollywood break came when he met Richard L. Bare, a director of the television western Cheyenne, who cast him in a small part. According to Mr. Garner, he was considered for the lead role in Cheyenne but that role went to Clint Walker because the casting director couldn't reach him in time. Instead of the lead, he wound up playing an Army officer in the Cheyenne pilot. That and other bit roles led to a contract with Warner Bros., which featured him in several movies -- including Sayonara (1957) starring Marlon Brando, which would be the first film where he would be known as "Garner" instead of "Bumgarner."

His first lead role was in a great movie called Darby’s Rangers (1958) as the World War II hero William Darby. It was a part he was given after Charlton Heston walked off the set in a dispute with the studio over money. At about the same time, Warner Bros. cast him as Bret Maverick -- the role that made him a star. Since Warner Bros. made Mr. Garner a contract player, which led to his starring as the shy Western hero on Maverick, he was a bargain at $500 a week. 

It was also about that time that James Garner married TV actress Lois Clarke, who now survives him. According to him, they met in 1956 at a presidential campaign rally for Adlai Stevenson. According to The Garner Files, Mrs. Garner said they had actually met at a party earlier.  

He leaves behind wife Louis Clarke, who he married just 14 days after meeting in 1956. He said of their whirlwind romance, during an interview on the Charlie Rose show in 2002: "We went to dinner every night for 14 nights. I was just absolutely nuts about her. I spent $77 on our honeymoon, and it about broke me."

As for his long marriage, he once said, "Marriage is like the Army; everyone complains, but you'd be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist".

Whether Warner Bros knew it or not, with the 1950s TV Western Maverick, James Garner would become a star, a legend, an American success story. Maverick ran from September 22, 1957, to July 8, 1962, on ABC and stars James Garner as the lead character Bret Maverick.
James Garner's Bret Maverick character is the epitome of a poker-playing drifter always seeking out high-stakes games and rarely remaining in one place for long. As a professional gambler in the Old West -- a time when gambling was looked upon as a true profession -- he showed us that he was could do drama and action and comedy while also having a low-key sharp wit as an unconventional Western hero.

His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of some of the others in 1950s television Westerns. Yes, Maverick inverted the usual cowboy hero characteristics familiar to television and movie viewers of the time.

While the fiction The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O'Brien opened with the music declaring "Wyatt Earp brave, courageous, and bold," Bret Maverick was vocally reluctant to risk his life -- though he typically ended up being courageous in spite of himself.

James Garner's character was an affable gambler and drifter who'd rather talk his way out of a problem than shoot his way out. The difference between Bret Maverick and most TV anti-heroes is that they are at heart self-serving and egocentric, that description did not fit any Maverick characters. His character was not above flimflamming an adversary, but only those who deserved it. Otherwise, he was honest almost to a fault, in at least one case insisting on repaying a questionable large debt.

The show was part of the Warner Bros. array of television Westerns, which included Cheyenne starring Clint Walker, Colt .45 staring Wayde Preston, Lawman starring John Russell, Bronco staring Ty Hardin Bronco, The Alaskans starring Roger Moore, and Sugarfoot starring Will Hutchins. Eight episodes into the first season, because of production demands, he was joined by Jack Kelly as his brother Bart.

James Garner as Bret Maverick, and Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick

From that point on, James Garner and Jack Kelly alternated leads from week to week -- sometimes teaming up for the occasional two-brother episode. The Maverick brothers were poker players from Texas who traveled all over the Old West and on Mississippi riverboats, constantly getting into and out of life-threatening trouble of one sort or another, usually involving money, women, or both. They would typically find themselves weighing a financial windfall against a moral dilemma. More often than not, their consciences trumped their wallets since both Mavericks were intensely ethical. It was almost impossible for anyone to beat them in any sort of a fistfight, that was reportedly kept in the scripts at the insistence of the studio.

As with all Westerns, there were lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, the isolated homestead, the saloon, the jail, the livery stable, the small-town main street, small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization, Indian villages, the hanging tree, Stetsons, spurs, saddles, lassos, Colt .45's, bandannas, buckskins, canteens, stagecoaches, long-horned cattle, cattle drives, prostitutes with a heart of gold, town drunks, badmen, gunmen, sharpshooters, and villains, but neither Bret nor Bart Maverick had a favorite horse or were fast guns. 

The truth of the matter, they professed their slowness with a gun. It's true. In the series, none of the Mavericks were particularly fast-draws with a pistol. Bret's brother Bart (played by Jack Kelly) commented in one episode, "My brother Bret can outdraw me any day of the week, and he's known as the Second Slowest Gun in the West."

While his character didn’t much care for horses or guns, all of the Mavericks was motivated by something much less grand than law and order: money. And yes, while James Garner set that standard, we cheered for him because he was on the right side of moral issues. And yes, his character had a natural affinity for the little guy being pushed by the bully.

"If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy," Mr. Garner wrote. "One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical."

Critics have repeatedly referred to Bret Maverick as arguably the first TV anti-hero, and have praised James Garner's charisma and subtly comedic facial expressions. The show is generally credited with launching James Garner's career, although he had already appeared in several movies, including Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend with Randolph Scott, and had filmed an important supporting role in Sayonara with Marlon Brando, which wasn't released until December 1957.

The peak year for television Westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. But even though that was the case, it should be noted that Maverick was the most prominent of ABC's Sunday night of western dramas. In fact, Maverick was so popular that it often beat The Ed Sullivan Show in the television ratings.

It didn't surprise Mr. Garner. The fact is that the networks were full up with steely-eyed, hard-as-nails gunmen, all traditional Western heroes. Bret Maverick provided a breath of fresh air. With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, Maverick seemed to scoff at the genre's 1950s stereotype Western hero.

Mr. Garner left the series, after the third season due to a legal dispute. In a Maverick-like move, Mr. Garner left the series in 1960 after winning a breach-of-contract suit against Warner Brothers over its refusal to pay him during a writers’ strike. 

Will Hutchins, Peter Brown, Jack Kelly, Ty Hardin, James Garner, Wayde Preston, and John Russell
His first film after leaving Maverick established him as a movie star. It was the film The Children's Hour which co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. He followed it with a successful comedy with Kim Novak, Boys Night Out, and then established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster hit war drama The Great Escape, and then followed that with two smash comedies with Doris Day -- The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling.

His favorite film was the cynical 1964 war drama The Americanization of Emily which co-starred Julie Andrews. Throughout his film career, Mr. Garner demonstrated his versatility in comedies, The Art of Love, A Man Could Get Killed, in suspense films such as 36 Hours, They Only Kill Their Masters, Marlowe, and in Westerns such as Duel at Diablo, Hour of the Gun, Skin Game, Support Your Local Gunfighter.

Unlike most film stars, Mr. Garner made repeated returns to television. A decade after Maverick, there was no better display of Mr. Garner's everyman demeanor than the NBC series The Rockford Files which aired from 1974 to 1980.

He played an L.A. private eye and a wrongly jailed ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took, while helplessly getting drawn into trouble to help someone who was neither a client nor maybe even a friend. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show's opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor. Through it all, Jim Rockford, however down on his luck, persevered hopefully. He wore the veneer of a cynic but led with his heart. And yes, he put that all that on screen for us to admire.

He even scored in commercials. During the late 1970s, he was paired with actress Mariette Hartley in a popular series of ads for Polaroid cameras. Their on-screen banter felt so authentic to some viewers that many mistakenly believed they were husband and wife.

The show he often cited as his favorite was Nichols (1971-72) and even though he reprised his Maverick role for television in the show Bret Maverick (1981-82), both were short-lived. The Rockford Files proved a solid hit, bringing him an Emmy. As the star of TV's The Rockford Files, he had a special ability to instantly connect with audiences. And yes, women admired his good looks and the way he held himself -- while men saw him as a regular guy.

It's said that like actor Steve McQueen who did many of his own stunts behind the wheel, James Garner was perhaps the best stunt driver in California. The creator of The Rockford Files, Stephen J. Cannell, didn’t want Garner to do his own car stunts in fear of the main actor’s safety. Soon Cannell came to realize that the professional stunt drivers weren’t nearly as good as Garner himself, and Cannell agreed to let Garner drive.

In an interview, James Garner talked about the reasons he liked Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird Espirit saying, "It had the right wheelbase, the perfect engine power; driving it was the most fun I had as an actor.”

Mr. Garner was so good at one particular driving maneuver that it was named in his honor. The trick involved driving a car backward at high speed, then spinning it 180°, and continuing forward without changing the direction of travel. Today, stunt drivers call that move a “Rockford” because no one did better than James Garner. It was just one of many ways he was an American original. It should be noted that Mr. Garner was often injured on the job. For example during the Rockford years, he had several knee operations and back trouble.

Among his notable TV movies: Barbarians at the Gate, Breathing Lessons, The Promise, My Name Is Bill W., The Streets of LaredoOne Special Night, and Decoration Day. In the 1980s and 1990s, when most stars his age were considered over the hill, James Garner's career remained strong.

His only Oscar nomination came for the film Murphy's Romance (1985), a comedy-romance in which he co-starred with Sally Field. Murphy's Romance is one of my personal favorites so much so that I named a horse after his character in the film. Yes, that's how my Quarter Horse Murphy got his name. In Murphy’s Romance, he played a small-town druggist who woos the new-in-town divorced mom played by Sally Field.

In this film he demonstrates the attributes that are pure Americanism as he displays a mixture of self-reliance, strength, wisdom, benevolence, charm, and lack of sympathy for fools. He co-starred in the film Maverick (1994), a big-screen return to the TV series, starring Mel Gibson in Mr. Garner's old title role. His character of Marshal Zane Cooper/ Pappy Maverick was outstanding.

His film My Fellow Americans (1996), was a comic adventure in which he and Jack Lemmon played feuding former presidents who find themselves framed by the sitting president and end up together on the lam.

Well into his 70s, he remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock's father in the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The following year, he joined the cast of 8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter, playing the grandfather on the sitcom.  He stepped in to help the show after star John Ritter, who played the father, died during the show's second season.

In the romantic film The Notebook (2004), James Garner was perfect. The Notebook's stars were Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as a young couple who fall in love during the early 1940s. But for me, James Garner and Gena Rowlands stole the show.

Their story is narrated from the present day by an elderly man portrayed by James Garner (Noah) who is reading a story to his wife. She is a fellow nursing home resident played by Gena Rowlands (Allie). Allie is suffering from dementia and cannot remember any of the events being read to her. The man who is reading to her is her husband, but Allie cannot recognize him. In the present, Allie briefly becomes lucid. She remembers that the story being read is the story of how they met. When the story ends, she remembers her past.
When she had found out about her illness, she herself wrote their story in the notebook with instructions for Noah to "read this to me, and I'll come back to you."

As Allie soon relapses, losing her memories of Noah. She panics, not understanding who he is, and has to be sedated. He himself is hospitalized with what seems to be another heart attack. When he is released from the hospital, Noah visits Allie to find her lucid again. Allie questions Noah about what will happen to them when she loses her memory completely and he reassures her that he will never leave her.

She asks him if he thinks their love for each other is strong enough to "take them away together?"

He tells her that their love could do anything. After telling each other that they love one another, they both go to sleep in Allie's bed. The next morning a nurse finds that they have died peacefully together. Yes, it is one of the best movies that James Garner had ever been made.

As for politics, James Garner was a strong Democrat Party supporter, so much so that since 1982 he had given at least $29,000 to Federal campaigns, of which over $24,000 has been to Democrat Party candidates.

On August 28, 1963, Mr Garner was one of several Hollywood celebrities, both Democrat and Republican, to join Martin Luther King Jr. in the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

James Garner and Marlon Brando in the crowd of supporters of Dr. Martine Luther King Jr.

In his autobiography, Mr. Garner recalled sitting in the third row listening to King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Believe it or not, prior to the entry of ex-San Francisco Mayor, presently U.S. Senator,  Dianne Feinstein, there was an effort by Democrat Party leaders, led by state Senator Herschel Rosenthal, to persuade James Garner to seek the 1990 Democrat nomination for Governor of California.

Although he defended actors who express their political views, in his book he is critical of those who run for office. "Too many actors have run for office," he writes. "There's one difference between me and them: I know I'm not qualified."

Just for the record, while he was no fan of Ronald Reagan, he did like Barack Obama when he ran in 2008. And according to his biography, The Garner Files, he disdained the pretentiousness of the acting profession.

"I'm a Methodist but not as an actor," he wrote in The Garner Files. "I'm from the Spencer Tracy school: Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories about acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote."

Nor did he sit still for the dog-eat-dog business side of Hollywood. In the early 1980s, he again sued his employer, at the time Universal, which he accused of cheating him out of his share of profits on The Rockford Files. Universal settled the case in 1989, reportedly paying him more than $14 million.

Truly sounding like a child of the Great Depression, and telling us more about how his performances may have reflected his feelings about his profession, in 1984 he told The New York Times, "I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really. It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living."

When Mr. Garner received the Screen Actors Guild's lifetime achievement award in 2005, he modestly said, "I'm not at all sure how I got here."

But in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files, he provided some amusing and enlightening clues, including his habit of bluntly expressing his opinion and his practice for decking people who said something nasty to his face -- including an obnoxious fan. And when he suspected his studio of cheating him on residual payments -- a not-unheard-of condition in Hollywood -- Mr. Garner spoke out loudly and fought back with lawsuits. "They all deserved it," he declared in his book.

Of course, Americans admire people who refuse to be cheated.

Mr. Garner enjoyed a 50-year career in TV and movies, with a wide range of comedic, drama, and Western roles. He starred in several television series over more than five decades, which included such popular roles as Bret Maverick in the 1950s Western series Maverick and Jim Rockford in the 1970s detective drama The Rockford Files.

Mr. Garner starred in more than 50 films including The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Hour of the Gun (1967), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Murphy's Romance (1985) for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and The Notebook (2004).

Reports today talked about how few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety. They spoke about his way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. And yes, he had a way of swallowing once to further make his point.

His demeanor was one that was understood and identified with every member of the audience. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He always remained one of the people.

In the late 1990s, the Garners built a 12,000-square-foot house on a 400-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara, California. "My wife and I felt ... we'd just watch the sunset from the front porch," Mr. Garner said in 2000. "But then the phone started ringing with all these wonderful offers, and we decided, `Heck, let's stay in the business for a while."'

It should be noted that James Garner was a huge supporter of the University of Oklahoma, often returning to Norman for school functions. When he attended Oklahoma Sooners football games, he frequently could be seen on the sidelines or in the press box. Mr. Garner received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at OU in 1995.

In 2003, to endow the James Garner Chair in the School of Drama, he donated $500,000, half of a pledged $1 million, for the first endowed position at the drama school. His love for Norman, Oklahoma, was returned on April 21st, 2006, when a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of Mr. Garner as Bret Maverick was unveiled with Mr. Garner present at the ceremony.

As a last note, back in the early 1980s while working as Security Supervisor at Candlestick Park for the San Francisco 49er football team, I met Mr. Garner at a game. Mr. Garner was a big fan of the Raiders, particularly when they played in Los Angeles between 1982 and 1994, and he regularly attended games and mixed with the players. On that day, the Raiders were playing the 49ers in a pre-season game in San Francisco and Mr. Garner was there in the player's parking area when I met him. I escorted him to a VIP booth, and I'll always remember how friendly he was. After the game, I returned to meet him and take him to his car.

After hearing about his death today, I thought about meeting him back then almost 30 years ago and how nice he was. He was a Hollywood legend, and yet he was a real gentleman. A very personable nice man who told me to call him by his first name. I thought about how he gave so much in the form of great entertainment to us. And yes, I thought about how much America has lost.

Mr. Garner, who smoked for most of his life, even after open-heart surgery in 1988, had suffered a stroke in 2008. My prayers and condolences are with his wife and the rest of their family. He will be missed.

Tom Correa


  1. Wow. That was very wonderful and I loved reading that. I am 37 years old and James Garner was very much a part of my childhood. He taught me how to be loveable while you are being a wise ass and do it was a sense of humility as well. I enjoyed reading this, thank you.

  2. James Garner was, and still is, one of my favorite actors. As an actor myself, I have always borrowed my acting skills from actors on TV. The thing I did with music is the same thing I did with acting. When I was a kid, I would copy all of the singers, musicians, and actors that were on TV and overtime I would just get better. One of many actors that I copied was James Garner. I copied his voice, his movements, everything. His character of Bret Maverick is one of many Western characters that I consider my favorite. Now I've never done any work in Hollywood, but I have done a lot of plays and stuff like that. And whenever I would receive a part, I don't think of myself playing the part. And that's because when I get into the role, I really get into it. I'm not myself anymore, I'm this character. And whatever this character does is what I have to do. I borrowed all of that from James Garner as well as others because those really are the actors that I borrow my acting skills from. I can do different accents as well as play a convincing villain. I've been a singer for 25 years and an actor for 17. Please don't try to do the math on that. But anyway, yeah. James Garner was and is my favorite actor out of many I have. Interesting fact. He did a Spaghetti Western in 1970 called "A Man Called Sledge" which was the only film directed by Vic Morrow. James Garner was the king. And in a way, he always will be. RIP Maverick.


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