Television legend James Garner has died at the age of 86. He reportedly passed away late last night.
Garner began his career with a non-speaking role in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial on Broadway after helping actor Lloyd Nolan learn his lines. He then landed a regular role in the touring production.
From there, he moved on to small roles in movies and television. While he found success starring in more than 50 films over the course of his career — including The Thrill of It All, The Americanization of Emily, Victor/Victoria, Murphy’s Romance, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and The Notebook — Garner really made his mark on the small screen.
He starred in a comedic Western, Maverick, in 1957 on ABC. Garner’s Bret Maverick character sought out high-stakes poker games and rarely stayed in one place for very long. Unlike traditional Western heroes, Maverick was lazy, slow on the draw, and often reluctant to risk his own life for others — possibly the first anti-hero on television. He typically ended up being courageous in spite of himself and, aside from flimflamming those who deserved it, Maverick was honest to a fault.
After seven episodes, Bret’s adventures alternated each week with those of his brother Bart (Jack Kelly). According to series creator Roy Huggins, this was done because episodes took more than a week to film and this allowed two episodes to be shot with different casts and crews at the same time. Garner quit the series after three seasons due to a financial dispute with the studio. He was replaced by Roger Moore and then by Robert Colbert but the ratings were never the same.
In the 1970s, Huggins wanted to remake Maverick as a modern-day detective and The Rockford Files was born. Huggins teamed with Stephen J. Cannell and Garner was hired to play private investigator Jim Rockford. Like his Western predecessor, Rockford was lazy and reluctant to risk his own neck but he’d always end up doing the right thing anyway.
Garner won an Emmy Award in 1977 for the series and starred in The Rockford Files for six seasons. He ended the show due to the physical toll the role had taken on his body.
A new Bret Maverick series was mounted in 1981 but it was cancelled by NBC after one season. Garner played Marshal Zane Cooper in the 1994 movie version of Maverick with Mel Gibson playing the title role. As a nod to Garner’s original role, it’s revealed in the end of the picture that Cooper is Maverick’s father.
Garner reprised his role as Jim Rockford in eight Rockford Files TV movies, from 1994 until 1999. There had been plans for Rockford to appear in an episode of Cannell’s Magnum, PI in the 1980s but, due to a dispute between Garner and Universal Studios, it never happened.
Garner is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Lois Clarke, a TV actress. She had a daughter Kimberly from a previous marriage, and the Garners had another daughter together, Gretta Scott.
What do you think? Have you enjoyed Garner’s work? Do you have any favorite performances?