The actor who put brains before brawn

James Garner
1928–2014

James Garner was the original American antihero. A 6-foot-3 Korean War veteran with a matinee idol’s rugged good looks, the actor specialized in playing characters like TV’s Bret Maverick and Jim
Rockford, who eschewed guns and violence and won the day through a combination of scheming and
self-effacing charm. Garner exhibited the same wily talents offscreen. In the 1980s, he sued Universal for cheating him out of profits from The Rockford Files and won an undisclosed sum, reportedly in the tens of millions of dollars. “I can’t legally comment on that,” Garner said of the figure. “But I can say that for a week or two afterward, [my wife] Lois had to keep telling me to wipe the grin off my face.”



Born in Norman, Okla., James Scott Bumgarner left home at 14 and drifted from job to job, working as a waiter, a golf ball retriever, and a lifeguard. He was drafted for the Korean War in 1950 and was awarded the first of two Purple Hearts on his second day in action. Returning to the U.S. in 1952, Garner “became an actor more or less by accident,” said The Wall Street Journal. A friend got him a nonspeaking role in a play starring Henry Fonda, and Garner soon signed a studio contract with Warner Bros. and was cast as the gambler-rogue hero of the TV Western Maverick. “The upstart series’s tongue-incheek formula worked,” said the Los Angeles Times, and within months the program was topping the ratings.

Garner took a “Machiavellian delight in studio politics,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), and abruptly left Maverick in 1960 after becoming involved in a writers strike. He sealed his reputation as an off-center iconoclast in 1974 with his role as a cranky private detective in The Rockford Files but left that show after six seasons amid a dispute with Universal. In 1984, he “gave what was arguably
his best performance in Heartsounds,” a TV film documenting a doctor’s death after a series of
heart attacks. Garner remained a reluctant hero to the end. Receiving the Screen Actors Guild’s
lifetime achievement in 2005, he quipped, “I’m not at all sure how I got here.”

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