James Garner (born James Scott Bumgarner; April 7, 1928) is an American film and television actor, one of the first Hollywood actors to excel in both media. He has starred in several television series spanning a career of more than five decades. These included his popular roles as Bret Maverick in the 1950s western–comedy series, Maverick, andJim Rockford in the 1970s detective drama, The Rockford Files. He has starred in more than fifty films, including The Great Escape (1963), Paddy Chayefsky‘s The Americanization of Emily (1964), Blake Edwards‘ Victor Victoria (1982),Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and The Notebook (2004).
Garner, the youngest of three children, was born in Norman, Oklahoma, the son of Mildred Scott (née Meek) and Weldon Warren Bumgarner, a carpet layer. His two older brothers were actor Jack Garner (1926–2011) and Charles Bumgarner, a school administrator who died in 1984. His family was Methodist. His mother, who was of part Cherokee descent, died when he was five years old. After their mother’s death, Garner and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. Garner was reunited with his family in 1934, when Weldon remarried.
Garner grew to hate his stepmother, Wilma, who beat all three boys, especially young James. When he was fourteen, Garner finally had enough of his “wicked stepmother” and after a particularly heated battle, she left for good. James’ brother Jack commented, “She was a damn no-good woman”. Garner stated that his stepmother punished him by forcing him to wear a dress in public and that he finally engaged in a physical fight with her, knocking her down and choking her to keep her from killing him in retaliation. This incident ended the marriage.
Shortly after the breakup of the marriage, Weldon Bumgarner moved to Los Angeles, while Garner and his brothers remained in Norman. After working at several jobs he disliked, at sixteen Garner joined the United States Merchant Marine near the end of World War II. He fared well in the work and with shipmates, but suffered from chronic seasickness. At seventeen, he joined his father in Los Angeles and enrolled at Hollywood High School, where he was voted the most popular student. A high school gym teacher recommended him for a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits. It paid well, $25 an hour, but in his first interview for the Archives of American Television, he said he hated modeling and soon quit and returned to Norman. There, he played football and basketball, as well as competed on the track and golf teams, for Norman High School. He never graduated from high school, explaining in a 1976 Good Housekeeping magazine interview: “I was a terrible student and I never actually graduated from high school, but I got my diploma in the Army.”
Later, he joined the National Guard serving seven months in the United States. He then went to Korea for 14 months in the Regular Army, serving in the 5th Regimental Combat Team in the Korean War. He was wounded twice, first in the face and hand from shrapnel fire from a mortar round, and second on April 23, 1951 in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dived headfirst into a foxhole. Garner was awarded the purple heart in Korea for the first injury. For the second wound, he received a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: “As the result of friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy”), although Garner received the medal in 1983, 32 years after his injury. Garner was a self-described “scrounger” for his company in Korea, a role he later played in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily.
In 1954 a friend, Paul Gregory, whom Garner had met while attending Hollywood High School, persuaded Garner to take a non-speaking role in the Broadwayproduction of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, where he was able to study actor Henry Fonda night after night. Garner subsequently moved to television commercials and eventually to television roles. His first movie appearances were in The Girl He Left Behind and Toward the Unknown in 1956.
He changed his last name from Bumgarner to Garner after the studio had credited him as “James Garner” without permission. He then legally changed it upon the birth of his first child, when he decided she had too many names. His brother Jack also had an acting career and changed his surname to Garner, too. His non-actor brother, Charlie, kept the Bumgarner surname.
Garner was closely advised by financial adviser Irving Leonard, who also advised Clint Eastwood in the late 1950s and 1960s. After several feature film roles, including Sayonara with Marlon Brando, Garner got his big break playing the role of professional gambler Bret Maverick in the comedy Western series Maverick from 1957 to 1960.
Garner was earlier considered for the lead role in another Warner Brothers Western series, Cheyenne, but that role went to Clint Walker because the casting director couldn’t reach Garner in time (according to Garner’s autobiography), and Garner wound up playing an Army officer in the pilot instead.
Only Garner and series creator Roy Huggins thought Maverick could compete with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show. The show almost immediately made Garner a household name. Various actors had recurring roles as Maverick foils, including Efrem Zimbalist, Jr as “Dandy Jim Buckley,” Richard Long as “Gentleman Jack Darby,” Leo Gordon as “Big Mike McComb,” and Diane Brewster as “Samantha Crawford” (Huggins’ mother’s maiden name) while the series veered effortlessly from comedy to adventure and back again. The relationship with Huggins, the creator and original producer of Maverick, would later pay dividends for Garner.
Garner was the lone star of Maverick for the first seven episodes but production demands forced the studio, Warner Brothers, to create a Maverick brother, Bart, played by Jack Kelly. This allowed two production units to film different story lines and episodes simultaneously. The series also featured popular cross-over episodes featuring both Maverick brothers, including the famous “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres“, upon which the first half of the 1973 movie The Sting appears to be based, according to Roy Huggins‘ Archive of American Television interview. Garner and Clint Eastwood staged an epic fistfight in an episode entitled “Duel at Sundown“, in which Eastwood plays a vicious gunslinger. Critics were positive about Garner and Jack Kelly’s chemistry, but Garner quit the series in the third season because of a dispute with Warner Brothers.
The studio attempted to replace Garner’s character with a Maverick cousin who had lived in Britain long enough to pick up an English accent, played by Roger Moore, but Moore quit the series after filming only 14 episodes as Beau Maverick. Warner Brothers also dressedRobert Colbert, a Garner look-alike, in Bret Maverick’s outfit and called the character Brent, but Brent Maverick did not have a chance to catch on with viewers since Colbert made only two episodes toward the end of the season, leaving the rest of the series run to Kelly (alternating with reruns of episodes with Garner).
When Charlton Heston turned down the lead role in Darby’s Rangers before Garner’s departure from Maverick, Garner was selected and performed well in the role. As a result of Garner’s performance in Darby’s Rangers, coupled with his Maverick popularity, Warner Brothers subsequently gave him lead roles in other films, such as Up Periscope and Cash McCall.
With Connie Stevens in 1959
1960s: Movie career peak
Reprising his Maverick
role for a Bob Hope
Buick special in 1961, Garner breaks up at rehearsal.
After his acrimonious departure from Warner Bros., in the 1960s he starred in such films as The Children’s Hour (1962) with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine; Boys’ Night Out (1962) with Kim Novak and Tony Randall; The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day;Move Over, Darling (a 1963 remake of My Favorite Wife also starring Doris Day in which Garner played Cary Grant‘s role); The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen; The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews; The Art of Love (1965) with Dick Van Dyke; Duel at Diablo (1966) with Sidney Poitier; and as Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967) with Jason Robards, Jr. as Doc Holliday, along with nine other theatrical releases during the decade.
In the smash hit war movie The Great Escape, Garner played the second lead for the only time during the decade, supporting fellow ex-TV series cowboy Steve McQueen among a cast of British and American screen veterans including Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson in a film depicting a mass escape from a Nazi prisoner of warcamp based on a true story.
The Americanization of Emily, a literate anti-war D-Day comedy, featured a screenplay written by Paddy Chayefsky and has remained Garner’s favorite of all his work. In 1963 exhibitors voted him the 16th most popular star in the US.
The cult racing film Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer, left Garner with a fascination for car racing that he often explored by actually racing during the ensuing years. The expensive Cinerama epic did not fare as well as expected at the box office.
In 1969, Garner joined a long list of actors to play Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in Marlowe, a detective drama featuring an early karate scene with Bruce Lee. The same year, Garner scored a hit with the comedy Western Support Your Local Sheriff! featuring Walter Brennan and Jack Elam.
In 1971, Garner returned to television in an offbeat series, Nichols. The network changed the show’s title to James Garner as Nichols during its second month in a vain attempt to rally the sagging ratings. The motorcycle-riding character was killed in what became the final episode of the single-season series. Garner was re-cast as the character’s more normal twin brother, in the hopes of creating a more popular series with few cast changes. According to Garner’s videotaped Archive of American Television interview, Garner had Nichols killed in the last episode so that a sequel could never be made.
The year 1971 also saw him star in the comedies Support Your Local Gunfighter!, similar to the earlier Support Your Local Sheriff! but not really a sequel, and the frontier comedy Skin Game, featuring Louis Gossett, Jr. and Garner as con men pretending to be a slave and his owner during the pre-Civil War era. The following year, Garner played a modern sheriff investigating a murder in the suspense drama They Only Kill Their Masters with Katherine Ross. He appeared in two movies co-starring Vera Miles as his leading lady, One Little Indian (1973) featuring Jodie Foster in an early minor role and The Castaway Cowboy (1974) with Robert Culp, before returning to television with a new detective series.
The Rockford Files
“Tall Woman in Red Wagon” episode (1974)
In the 1970s, Roy Huggins had an idea to remake Maverick, but this time as a modern-day private detective. Huggins teamed with co-creator Stephen J. Cannell, and the pair tapped Garner to attempt to rekindle the success of Maverick, eventually recycling many of the plots from the original series. Starting with the 1974 season, Garner appeared as private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.
He appeared for six seasons, for which he received an Emmy Award for Best Actor in 1977. Veteran character actor Noah Beery, Jr. (Wallace Beery‘s nephew) played Rockford’s father, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford, whileGretchen Corbett portrayed Rockford’s lawyer and sometime lover, Beth Davenport, until she left the series over a salary dispute with the studio. Garner also invited yet another familiar actor, Joe Santos, who played Rockford’s friend in the Los Angeles Police Department, Detective Dennis Becker. Rounding out the cast was a character actor and friend of Garner’s who had previously co-starred with him on Nichols, Stuart Margolin, playing Jim’s ex-cell mate and treacherous “friend” Angel Martin. In the first episode of Season Six, Paradise Cove, Mariette Hartley guest-starred as Court Auditor Althea Morgan. Garner had previously appeared with Rockford Files co-star Hartley in a series of Polaroid Camera commercials. Garner ultimately ended the run of the show, despite consistently high ratings, because of the high physical toll on his body. Appearing in nearly every scene of the series, doing many of his own stunts — including one that injured his back — was wearing him out. A knee injury from his National Guard days worsened in the wake of the continuous jumping and rolling, and he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1979.
Margolin said of his longtime colleague that despite Garner’s health problems in the later years of The Rockford Files, he would often work long shifts, unusual for a starring actor, staying to do off-camera lines with other actors, doing his own stunts despite his knee problems. When Garner made The Rockford Files television movies, he said that 22 people (with the exception of series co-star Beery, who died late in 1994) came out of retirement to participate.
In July 1983, Garner filed suit against Universal Studios for US$16.5 million in connection with his on-going dispute from The Rockford Files. The suit charged Universal with “breach of contract; failure to deal in good faith and fairly; and fraud and deceit”. It was eventually settled out of court in 1989. As part of the agreement Garner could not disclose the amount of the settlement.
Garner sued Universal again in 1998 for $2.2 million over syndication royalties. In this suit he charged the studio with “deceiving him and suppressing information about syndication”. He was supposed to receive $25,000 per episode that ran in syndication, but Universal charged him “distribution fees”. He also felt that the studio did not release the show to the highest bidder for the episode reruns.
Garner returned to his earlier TV role in 1981 in the revival series Bret Maverick, but NBC unexpectedly canceled the show after only one season despite reasonably good ratings. Critics noted that most of the scripts did not measure up to the first series. Jack Kelly (Bart Maverick) was slated to become a series regular had the show been picked up for another season, and he appeared in the last scene of the final episode in a surprise guest role.
During the 1980s, Garner played dramatic roles in a number of TV movies, including Heartsounds (with Mary Tyler Moore), Promise (with Piper Laurie) and My Name Is Bill W. In 1984, he played the lead in Joseph Wambaugh‘s The Glitter Dome for HBO Pictures, which was being directed by his Rockford Files co-starStuart Margolin. The film generated a mild controversy for a bondage sequence featuring Garner and co-star Margot Kidder.
He was nominated for his first Oscar award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the movie Murphy’s Romance opposite Sally Field. Field, and director Martin Ritt, had to fight the studio, Columbia Pictures, to have Garner cast, since he was regarded as a TV actor by then (despite having co-starred in the box office hit Victor Victoria opposite Julie Andrews two years earlier). Columbia didn’t want to make the picture at all, because it had no “sex or violence” in it. But because of the success ofNorma Rae (1979), with the same star (Field), director, and screenplay writing team (Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch), and with Field’s new production company (Fogwood Films) producing, Columbia agreed. Columbia wanted Marlon Brando to play the part of Murphy, so Field and Ritt had to insist on Garner. Part of the deal from the studio, which at that time was owned by The Coca-Cola Company, included an eight line sequence of Field and Garner saying the word “Coke”, and also having Coke signs appear prominently in the film. In A&E‘s Biography of Garner, Field reported that her on-screen kiss with Garner was the best cinematic kiss she had ever experienced.
Garner played Wyatt Earp in two very different movies shot 21 years apart, Hour of the Gun in 1967 and Sunset in 1988. The first film was a realistic depiction of theO.K. Corral shootout and its aftermath, while the second centered around a fictional adventure shared by Earp and silent movie cowboy star Tom Mix; the real-life Earp actually was a consultant on some early silent Westerns toward the end of his life. The film featured Bruce Willis as Mix in only his second movie role. Although Willis was billed over Garner, the film actually gave more screen time and emphasis to Earp. Malcolm McDowell played a villainous silent comedian.
In 1991, Garner starred in Man of the People, a television series about a con man chosen to fill an empty seat on a city council, with Kate Mulgrew and Corinne Bohrer. Despite reasonably fair ratings, the show was canceled after only 10 episodes. In 1993, Garner played the lead in another well-received TV-movie,Barbarians at the Gate, and went on to reprise his role as Jim Rockford in eight The Rockford Files made-for-TV movies beginning the following year. The powerfully frenetic opening theme song from the original series was rerecorded and slowed to a mournfully funereal pace, and practically everyone in the original cast of recurring characters returned for the new episodes except Noah Beery, Jr., who had died in the interim. For the second half of the 1980s, Garner appeared in several of the North American market Mazda television commercials as an on screen spokesman.
In 1994, Garner played Marshal Zane Cooper in a movie version of Maverick, with Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick (in the end it is revealed that Garner’s character is the father of Gibson’s Maverick) and Jodie Foster as a gambling lass with a fake southern accent. In 1995, he played lead character Woodrow Call, an ex-lawman, in the TV miniseries sequel to Lonesome Dove entitled Streets of Laredo, based on Larry McMurtry‘s book. In 1996, Garner and Jack Lemmon teamed up in My Fellow Americans, playing two former presidents who uncover scandalous activity by their successor Dan Aykroyd and are pursued by murderous NSA agents. In addition to a major recurring role during the last part of the run of TV series Chicago Hope, Garner also starred in a couple of short-lived series, the animated God, the Devil and Bob and First Monday, in which he played a Supreme Court justice.
In 2000, after an operation to replace both knees, Garner appeared with Clint Eastwood (who had played a villain in the original Maverick series) as astronauts in the movie Space Cowboys, also featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. During a group appearance by the cast on television’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Leno ran a brief clip from Garner and Eastwood’s lengthy saloon fistfight during Eastwood’s Maverick appearance in “Duel at Sundown” over forty years earlier; Tommy Lee Jones and Eastwood also stage a brief bar brawl in Space Cowboys, and Leno is shown interviewing the four astronauts in the film.
In 2001, Garner voiced the main antagonist, Commander Rourke, in Disney‘s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. In 2002, following the death of James Coburn, Garner took over Coburn’s role as TV commercial voiceover for Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” advertising campaign. Garner continued to voice the commercials until the end of the campaign. Upon the death of John Ritter in 2003, Garner joined the cast of 8 Simple Rules as Grandpa Jim Egan (Cate’s father). Originally intended to be a one-shot guest role, he stayed with the series until its end in 2005.
In 2004, Garner starred in the movie version of Nicholas Sparks‘ The Notebook alongside Gena Rowlands as his wife (portrayed in flashbacks by Rachel McAdams, while the younger version of Garner’s character was played by Ryan Gosling, who bore no physical resemblance to Garner while two other characters in the film’s flashback sequences were portrayed by young Garner lookalikes), directed by Nick Cassavetes, Rowlands’ son. The Screen Actors Guild nominated Garner as best actor for “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role.”
In 2010, Garner voiced the wizard Shazam in the direct-to-video animated feature Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.
In 2011, the PBS television documentary series Pioneers of Television briefly profiled Garner’s contribution to the television series Maverick and other Westerns, illustrated with film clips, rare stills, and interviews with Garner and Stephen J. Cannell, and a voiceover narration read by Kelsey Grammer touching on Garner’s difficult childhood and his impact when Maverick dominated Sunday night television.
On November 1, 2011, Simon & Schuster published Garner’s autobiography “The Garner Files: A Memoir.” In addition to recounting his career, the memoir co-written with non-fiction writer Jon Winokur, detailed the childhood abuses Garner suffered at the hands of his stepmother. It also offered frank, unflattering assessments of some of Garner’s co-stars like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.
In addition to recalling the genesis of most of Garner’s hit movies and television shows, the book also featured a section where the star provided individual critiques for every one of his acting projects accompanied by a star rating for each.
Garner’s three-time co-star Julie Andrews wrote the book’s foreword. Lauren Bacall, Diahann Carroll, Doris Day, Tom Selleck and Stephen J. Cannell and many other Garner associates, friends and relatives provided their memories of the star in the book’s coda.
For his contribution to the film and television industry, Garner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard). In 1990, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was also inducted into theTelevision Hall of Fame that same year. In February 2005, he received the Screen Actors Guild‘s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role that year, for The Notebook. When Morgan Freeman won that prize for his work in Million Dollar Baby, he led the audience in a sing-along of the original Maverick theme song, written by David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster. In 2010, the Television Critics Association gave Garner its annual Career Achievement Award.
Statue of James Garner
On April 21, 2006, a 10-foot-tall (3.0 m) bronze statue of Garner as Bret Maverick was unveiled in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, with Garner present at the ceremony.
Marriage and family
The Garners in 1961. Greta is on Garner’s lap; Kim is looking out between Garner and his wife, Lois.
Garner is married to Lois Clarke, whom he met at an “Adlai Stevenson for President” rally in 1956. They married 14 days later on August 17, 1956. “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.” According to Garner, “Marriage is like the Army; everyone complains, but you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist”.
When Garner and Clarke married, her daughter Kim from a previous marriage was seven years old and recovering from polio. Garner has one daughter with wife Lois: Greta “Gigi” Garner. In an interview in Good Housekeeping with Garner, his wife, and two daughters conducted at their home that was published in March 1976, Gigi’s age was given as 18 and Kim, 27.
Garner’s knees would become chronic problems during the filming of The Rockford Files in the 1970s, with “six or seven knee operations during that time.” In 2000 he had both knees surgically replaced.
On April 22, 1988, Garner had quintuple bypass heart surgery. Though he rapidly recovered, the doctors insisted that he stop smoking. Garner complied—17 years later.
Garner underwent surgery on May 11, 2008, following a minor stroke he had suffered two days earlier. His prognosis was reported to be “very positive.”
Garner was an owner of the “American International Racers” (AIR) auto racing team from 1967 through 1969. Famed motorsports writer William Edgar and Hollywood director Andy Sidaris teamed with Garner for the racing documentary “The Racing Scene,” filmed in 1969 and released in 1970. The team fielded cars at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring endurance races, but is best known for Garner’s celebrity status raising publicity in early off-road motor-sports events. Garner signed a three-year sponsorship contract with American Motors Corporation (AMC). His shops prepared ten 1969 SC/Ramblers for the Baja 500 race. Garner did not drive in this event because of a film commitment in Spain that year. Nevertheless, seven of his cars finished the grueling race, taking three of the top five places in the sedan class. Garner also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1975, 1977, and 1985 (see: list of Indianapolis 500 pace cars).
Garner was an avid golfer for many years. Along with his brother, Jack, he played golf in high school. Jack even attempted a professional golfing career after a brief stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball farm system. Garner took it up again in the late 1950s to see if he could beat Jack. He was a regular for years at Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In February 1990 at the AT&T Golf Tournament he won the Most Valuable Amateur Trophy.
University of Oklahoma
James Garner is a supporter of the University of Oklahoma, often returning to Norman for school functions. When he attended a game, he frequently could be seen on the sidelines or in the press box at Oklahoma Sooners football games. 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. Tom H. Orr, the Director for the School of Drama (Acting/Camera Acting) and the Artistic Director University Theatre, currently holds the James Garner Chair at the university.
Garner is a strong Democratic Party supporter, contributing over $7,500 to Democrats running for federal office the past seven years, including Dennis Kucinich (for Congress in 2002), Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and various Democratic committees and groups. Since 1982 Garner has given at least $29,000 to Federal campaigns, of which over $24,000 has been to the Democrats.
On August 28, 1963, Garner was one of several celebrities to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In his autobiography, Garner recalled sitting in third row listening to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
For his role in the 1985 CBS miniseries Space, the character’s party affiliation was changed from Republican as in the book to reflect Garner’s personal views. Garner said, “My wife would leave me if I played a Republican”.
Prior to the entry of ex-San Francisco Mayor (later U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein, there was an effort by Democratic party leaders, led by state Senator Herschel Rosenthal, to persuade James Garner to seek the 1990 Democratic nomination forGovernor of California