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An enormously likable and well-respected star since the early 1950s, James Garner was an Oscar-nominated American actor with a knack for playing lovable rogues in scores of films and television series. Though his rugged good looks made him a capable leading man in features like "The Great Escape" (1963), "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), and "Grand Prix" (1969), Garner found his greatest fame on the small screen; most notably in two popular series: the tongue-in-cheek Western, "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962) and the detective drama "The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1974-1980). Both programs made excellent use of Garner's folksy, underplayed delivery, earning him an Emmy (for "Rockford") and scores of nominations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained exceptionally active in movies and television, as well as scores of commercials, well into his eighth decade.Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, OK on April 7, 1928, Garner was one of three sons born to Weldon Bumgarner, a carpet layer, and his wife Mildred, who died when Garner was three. The boys - who included brothers Charlie, who died in 1965, and Jack, who followed Garner into acting in the mid-1960s - were sent to live with relatives until...
An enormously likable and well-respected star since the early 1950s, James Garner was an Oscar-nominated American actor with a knack for playing lovable rogues in scores of films and television series. Though his rugged good looks made him a capable leading man in features like "The Great Escape" (1963), "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), and "Grand Prix" (1969), Garner found his greatest fame on the small screen; most notably in two popular series: the tongue-in-cheek Western, "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962) and the detective drama "The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1974-1980). Both programs made excellent use of Garner's folksy, underplayed delivery, earning him an Emmy (for "Rockford") and scores of nominations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained exceptionally active in movies and television, as well as scores of commercials, well into his eighth decade.
Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, OK on April 7, 1928, Garner was one of three sons born to Weldon Bumgarner, a carpet layer, and his wife Mildred, who died when Garner was three. The boys - who included brothers Charlie, who died in 1965, and Jack, who followed Garner into acting in the mid-1960s - were sent to live with relatives until 1934, when their father remarried. The stepmother was apparently cut from typical fairytale cloth; in interviews, Garner recalled receiving consistent beatings from the woman, which ended only when he physically attacked her and she split from his father.
Garner's father relocated to Los Angeles following the divorce, while his sons remained in Oklahoma. Displeased with the options afforded him there, the 16-year-old lied about his age while signing up for the United States Merchant Marines in 1944. A year later, he joined his father in Los Angeles and attempted to earn his diploma at Hollywood High School. Despite being a popular student and a skilled athlete in football and basketball, he dropped out in 1946 and returned to Norman, where he gave high school one final try before dropping out in 1948. Garner later joined the Army and served in Korea, where he earned two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained in the conflict. Those injuries would later dash his hopes of a college career after his return to the United States; he eventually moved back to Los Angeles and worked in a score of odd jobs, including a model for Jantzen's swim trunks.
Garner's acting career began in 1954 after meeting Paul Gregory, a former classmate from Hollywood High, who was producing the Broadway run of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." Gregory got Garner a non-speaking role as a judge in the show, which allowed him to study its star, Henry Fonda, on a nightly basis. He eventually returned to Los Angeles and began working steadily in commercials and episodic television, which lead to a contract at Warner Bros., where he earned $150 a week. The studio also changed his name to "Garner" without his permission, but the new moniker stuck. He made his TV debut in a 1955 episode of "Cheyenne" (ABC, 1955-1963), which was quickly followed by his first feature, "Toward the Unknown," in 1956. That same year, he met Lois Clarke and married her after only 14 days. He became stepfather to her daughter, Kelly, and the couple had a daughter of their own, Greta, who later became a noted writer and - ironically enough, considering his future definitive role - a private investigator.
Garner worked his way up from featured player to supporting actor in features - including "Sayonara" opposite none other than Marlon Brando in 1957 - before landing the role of gambler, drifter and reluctant hero Bret Maverick on "Maverick" in 1957. Originally envisioned as a standard issue horse opera and not unlike the plethora of cowboy series that dominated the networks at the time, creator Roy Huggins and Garner soon inverted the show's focus - and genre expectations as a whole - to make Maverick into an anti-hero, more interested in cards and relaxation than any sort of heroics. He was still a decent sort, and could be called upon to right wrongs when necessary, but Garner's Maverick did so with his wits; not his fists or guns. Eventually, the show took a decidedly satirical tone, even poking fun at established Western series like "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973) and "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975). Audiences flocked to the show as a fresh alternative on a stagnating genre, finding Garner's semi-comic tone enormously appealing. He would receive an Emmy nomination for his performance as Maverick in 1957, and take home a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer in 1958. He would also make a cameo as the character in the 1959 comedy "Alias Jesse James," starring Bob Hope.
Unfortunately, the network never felt entirely secure with Huggins and Garner's approach, and brought aboard Jack Kelly to play Bret's brother, Bart, who would bring a more traditional style of Western hero in the program. For the next three seasons, Garner and Kelly alternated as the star of the show, and occasionally appeared together in the same episode. But in 1960, he left "Maverick" over a contract dispute, and the show soon faltered before cancellation in 1962. Garner returned to moviemaking, but now as a leading man.
Though he could more than carry his own in serious drama - he was fine if underutilized as the upstanding fiancée to Shirley Maclaine, who was carrying on an affair with Audrey Hepburn in "The Children's Hour" (1961) - Garner fared best in action pictures, which made excellent use of his tall, athletic frame. When given the chance, he was also surprisingly adept at comedies, to which he could apply his understated humor. He was a fine substitute for Rock Hudson in two Doris Day comedies - "The Thrill of It All," (1963) and "Move Over, Darling" (1964) - and played agreeable variations on his Maverick persona in "The Wheeler Dealers" (1963) and "The Art Of Love" (1965) with Dick Van Dyke and Elke Sommer. Garner also held his own amidst a cast of fellow up-and-comers, including Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and David McCallum, in John Sturges' classic World War II film "The Great Escape," and developed an interest in racing after starring in John Frankenheimer's gritty "Grand Prix" (1966). He was occasionally given chances to play outside his established screen persona, most notably in the anti-war drama "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), which earned controversy for Julie Andrews's wartime widow who trades sexual favors for commodities, and "Mr. Buddiwing" (1966), which cast Garner as an amnesiac searching for his identity. Thanks to "Maverick," he was regularly cast in Westerns, where he played everything from violent loners like his take on Wyatt Earp in "Hour of the Gun" (1967) to charming con men, such as in the hit comedy "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1969), its sequel "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1971), and the amusing "Skin Game" (1971) with Louis Gossett, Jr.
After playing an exceptionally laid-back Phillip Marlowe in 1969's "Marlowe" (which featured a show-stopping fight with a pre-stardom Bruce Lee), Garner returned to network television with "Nichols" (NBC, 1971-72). The unusual Western cast Garner as a scheming con man whose get-rich schemes were interrupted by his appointment as sheriff of his small hometown. Audiences never warmed to the unscrupulous character, so he was shot dead in the season finale and replaced by his more benevolent twin - also played by Garner. Unfortunately, the network pulled the plug on the series before viewers could see if the change in direction was an improvement.
Garner's next series proved to be one of his biggest career triumphs. He reunited with "Maverick" producer Roy Huggins, who teamed with producer Stephen J. Cannell to create "The Rockford Files," which also took a revisionist approach to a well-established TV genre - the detective series. Garner's Jim Maverick was as far afield from the small screen private eyes of the period as one could get - an ex-con with a spotty employment record, he solved low-rent cases (insurance scams, missing persons, and the like) for rock-bottom prices, and preferred to avoid violence at all costs. Everything about Rockford was laid back, from Garner's easygoing delivery to his questionable clothing choices and living situation - a trailer near the home of his retired dad (Noah Beery Jr.). The only nods to hipness were his car - a beautiful Pontiac Firebird - and the show's theme song by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, which became a Grammy-winning Top 10 hit. Despite the lack of flash, audiences loved the interplay between Garner and Beery and the other series regulars, including Stuart Margolin as former cellmate and pal Angel, and Rockford's disregard for authority figures like the police (though J Santos' Sgt. Dennis Becker was a rare exception). "Rockford" was a moderate success in the ratings during its six-year run - it would become considerably more popular in reruns - and earned Garner several Emmy nominations before he took home the trophy in 1977.
Despite the acclaim, the daily grind of a series took its toll on Garner's health. He preferred to work long hours and perform his own stunts, which exacerbated problems with his knees that he had incurred in Korea, and later resulted in back problems and an ulcer. At the advice of doctors, he left the show in 1980, much to the disappointment of its many fans. He attempted to fulfill his contract to NBC by launching a revival of "Maverick" in various forms - he had brought back the character in a 1978 TV-movie, "The New Maverick," in the debut episode of a failed spinoff series, "Young Maverick" (NBC, 1979); but "Bret Maverick" (NBC, 1981), was pulled after just 18 episodes.
Garner would later engage in a bitter and protracted legal battle with NBC over the profits from "Rockford," which the network claimed had operated in the red for several seasons. Garner, who co-produced the series through his Cherokee Productions, disagreed, and the dispute remained unsettled until the early 1990s, when the network paid the actor an undisclosed sum out of court. From 1994 through 1999, Garner and most of the original "Rockford" cast (save Noah Beery, who died in 1994) reunited for a string of popular TV-movies which managed to recapture the low-key charm of the original series and netted Garner two Screen Actors Guild award nominations.
The 1980s were a remarkably prolific and well-regarded period in Garner's career. He appeared in several features during the decade, most notably Blake Edwards' "Victor/Victoria" (1982) as the bewildered love interest for Julie Andrews' cross-dressing chanteuse, and earned his only Oscar nomination for the sweet, unassuming drama "Murphy's Romance" (1985) as the courtly town druggist who sweeps divorcee Sally Field off her feet. But he found regular and more substantial work in television movies, which frequently the now-50ish Garner in more serious roles. He co-starred with Mary Tyler Moore in an adaptation of Martha Weinman Lear's "Heartsounds" (1984), a chronicle of the difficulties faced by a couple after the husband underg s double bypass heart surgery, and teamed with James Woods in a pair of exceptional films - "Promise" (1985), with Garner as the brother of a schizophrenic (Woods), and "My Name Is Bill W." (1989), which explored the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous - which he also co-produced. There was also fine work in the miniseries "Space" (1985), with Garner as real-life Senator Norman Grant, who oversaw the development of the U.S. space program, and the Southern family drama "Decoration Day" (1990). For this impressive body of work, Garner received numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and brought home two awards - an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special for "Promise" and a Golden Globe for Best Actor in "Decoration Day."
Garner's health took an alarming turn in the late 1980s when he was forced to undergo quintuple bypass surgery. Earning his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 undoubtedly raised his spirits, and he continued with his busy work schedule, which saw him make a return to series work with "Man of the People" (NBC, 1991), a comedy about a scam artist appointed to a city council chair in a small California town. Despite solid ratings, the show was axed after only 10 episodes. Garner then resumed his TV-movie career, which balanced the crowd-pleasing "Rockford" reunions with more dramatic fare like "Barbarians at the Gate" (1993), which cast him in another Golden Globe-winning role as Nabisco chief F. Ross Johnson, who faces overwhelming opposition in his attempt to buy out the rest of the company's shareholders, and "Streets of Laredo" (1995), a sequel to the massively popular "Lonesome Dove" (1989) with Garner in Tommy Lee Jones' role. Garner also made a few returns to feature films, most notable the big-screen adaptation of "Maverick" (1994), now with Mel Gibson in the role and Garner as his father, and "Fire in the Sky" (1993) as a cagey Texas Ranger investigating claims of UFO abductions.
Garner ended the 1990s with solid work in the detective drama "Twilight" (1998) opposite a galaxy of aging but well-regarded stars, including Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing, and the TV-movie "Legalese" (1998) as a slick celebrity lawyer defending an actress accused of murder. He began the new millennium with surgery on both knees, but the now-72-year-old Garner refused to slow down. He joined the cast of "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000) in its final season to play the head of the hospital, then played a retired astronaut called back to duty for Clint Eastwood's rousing feature "Space Cowboys" (2000). More series work followed - he was a conservative Supreme Court judge on the short-lived "First Monday" (CBS, 2001), and later voiced an exceptionally laid-back Almighty in the animated series "God, the Devil and Bob" (NBC, 2000).
In 2003, Garner made interesting headlines by stepping in to replace the late John Ritter as the father figure on "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" (ABC, 2002-05). Originally envisioned as a guest shot, Garner (who played series regular Katey Sagal's father) was later hired as a cast member, along with his former "Support Your Local Gunfighter" co-star Suzanne Pleshette, and stayed with the series until its cancellation in 2005. During this period, he also enjoyed two sizable hits at the movies - as Sandra Bullock's father in "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002), and as the devoted husband to Alzheimer's-stricken Gena Rowlands in the formidable weeper "The Notebook" (2004), which earned him another Screen Actors Guild award nod. A year later, the organization would give him their Lifetime Achievement Award.
In addition to his lengthy acting career, Garner was in demand as a commercial spokesman and voice-over artist. In the 1970s, he appeared alongside Mariette Hartley in a series of TV spots for Polaroid that were almost as well-known as his work on "Rockford Files." The pair's chemistry was so palpable that many viewers mistook them for real-life spouses. Later, he replaced the late James Coburn as the voice of Chevrolet's "Like a Rock" campaign. Garner also lent his time and services to several charitable causes, including the National Support Committee for the Native American Rights Fund (Garner was part Cherokee) and the National Advisory Board of the United States High School Golf Association. In 2008, the seemingly unstoppable force that was Garner underwent surgery for a minor stroke. Doctors gave his prognosis in April of that year as positive, giving fans of a sigh of relief.
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Inducted to the Academy of Televison Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1991.
Garner gave $500,000 to help aspiring actors at the University of Oklahoma. The gift will be used to endow a $1 million faculty chair in the university's School of Drama.
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