Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Life and Times of James Garner

"Television is a close-up, intimate medium: The audience falls in love with Jim (Garner) as a friend."

-  Brandon Stoddard, former senior vice president of ABC. Esquire magazine, 1979

If James Garner were alive today, he would be celebrating his 93rd birthday.  Jim was a tall, rugged leading man and he was perfectly suited to playing cowboys in westerns.  However, he was much more than just a cowboy actor and his movie and television characters were quite varied through the years.  Jim is best known for his roles as Bret Maverick on Maverick and Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files.  Washington Post TV critic, Tom Shales, once wrote that as both Maverick and Rockford, Garner "embodied the crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American masculinity."

James Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner in Denver, Oklahoma  (now part of Norman, Oklahoma) on April 7, 1928, the son of German Americans.  Jim's father, Weldon Warren Bumgarner, ran a country store..  His mother, Mildred Scott (Meek), died when he was about four years old.  Upon her death, Jim and his two older brothers, Jack and Charlie Bumgarner, were sent to live with different relatives.

Jim's father remarried several times, and one of Jim' stepmothers, Wilma, was abusive to him and his brothers.  According to Jim, she regularly beat them "with anything she could get hold of."

In 1944, 16-year-old Jim dropped out of Norman High School and joined the Merchant Marines, but soon left due to sea sickness.  The teenager then moved to Los Angeles, where his father resided.  He briefly attended Hollywood High School, where his football coach recommended him for a job modelling swimsuits for magazine advertisements   Jim worked at a variety of other jobs before he took up acting.  He was a telephone installer, an old field roughneck in Oklahoma and Texas, a dishwasher, a janitor, a lifeguard, a grocery clerk, a salesman and a Los Angeles gas station attendant.  

Jim became an actor quite by chance.  It was during his time as a gas station attendant that he became acquainted with a man named Paul Gregory, who was then working as a soda jerk.  Years later, it would be Gregory who helped draw him into an acting career.  

In 1950, James Garner was drafted into  the U.S. Army and saw combat in the Korean War.  He was wounded twice, for which he was awarded two Purple Hearts, according to his obituaries.. After his discharge from the army, Jim attended the University of Oklahoma for a short time.  He then returned to California and worked with his father as a carpet layer.  

In 1954, Jim's old friend, Paul Gregory, offered him a non-speaking role in a Broadway-bound play.  Gregory, who had become a producer and agent, took Jim on as a client and cast him in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a play he was producing.  The Caine Mutiny Court Martial opened in Santa Barbara, California and arrived on Broadway in January of 1954.  It had a stellar cast, including Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan.

One of Jim's duties was to read the lines to the lead actors.  In this way, he became schooled in the art of acting and was especially influenced by Henry Fonda.  Performing in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial sparked Jim's career.  It led to minor television roles and TV commercials and the young actor was eventually signed as a contract player with Warner Brothers.

After appearing in several feature films, including Sayonara (1957) with Marlon Brando, Jim was cast as roving riverboat gambler Bret Maverick in the TV western Maverick.  Jack Kelly co-starred as Brett Maverick's brother, Bart, in the highly successful ABC series which ran for five seasons from 1957 to 1962.  Within two weeks of its debut, i, Maverick surpassed CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC's Steve Allen in the Sunday night ratings.  Competing with such strong rivals was no easy task.

In 1960, Jim left his role on Maverick due to a salary dispute.  He had been dissatisfied with Warner Brothers over his relatively low pay and the studio's control over his career.  During a writer's strike, he was suspended without pay and he successfully sued to be released from his contract.

Garner as Bret Maverick (1959)

Below is a photo of James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverik from a 1957 episode of Maverik entitled "Hostage" {Season 1, Episode 8, Air Date: November 10, 1057).  The episode was Kelly's introduction to the series

After leaving Maverick, James Garner established his own company, Cherokee Productions and  focused on movies.  From 1961 until 1971, he appeared in 21 feature films, including The Children's Hour (1961), with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn and The Great Escape (1963), with Steve McQueen.  In 1971, Jim returned to television in Nichols, a short-lived NBC western set in Arizona in 1914.  He played an ex-soldier who becomes sheriff of the town.  Only 26 episodes of Nichols, co-starring Margot Kidder, were produced.  The series ended its run in 1972.

Below is a 1971 photo of James Garner and Margot Kidder in Nichols.

Jim's next venture proved far more successful.  From 1974 to 1980, he starred in The Rockford Files, portraying Los Angeles-based private investigator Jim Rockford on the NBC series.  The Rockford Files did not have the usual private eye stereotypes.  Instead of a secretary, Rockford had an answering machine.  He worked from his home, a dilapidated trailer in a parking lot on a beach in Malibu, California. 

In 2005, James Garner told Daily Variety that there was not that much difference between Rockford and Maverick.  "They're anti-heroes, both of them," he said, "and for an actor, that's probably the most fun kind of leading man to play."

The Rockford Files was created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell.  Huggins, who also created Maverick, found the same winning formula in a modern day detective setting.   Noah Beey Jr. played Jim Rockford's father, Joseph "Rocky" Rockford, a retired truck driver.  Gretchen Corbett portrayed attorney Elizbeth "Beth" Davenport. 

Beery, Jr. as Rocky

Davenport as Beth 1975

During the filming of The Rockford Files, Jim suffered from chronic knee problems.  The show ended abruptly in 1980 because Garner was under doctors' orders to take time off. due to a bleeding ulcer.  Jim had other health issues, too.  In 2000, he underwent underwent knee replacement surgery for both knees.  On April 22, 1998, Jim had quintuple heart bypass surgery.  He made a quick recovery but was advised to stop smoking.  He didn't quit until 17 years later.  In May of 2008, Jim suffered a severe stroke.  Two days later he underwent surgery and his prognosis was considered to be 'very positive.

In 1978, Jim Garner reunited with Jack Kelly in a made-for-television film entitled The New Maverick, also starring Susan Sullivan.  Bret's brother, Bart., played by Kelly, makes an appearance near the end of the movie.

In the 1980s, Jim played dramatic roles in several made-for-television films such as Heartsounds (1984), opposite Mary Tyler Moore, in which he played a doctor who is deprived of oxygen during surgery and wakes up brain damaged,  He also portrayed the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. in My Name is Bill W, a 1989 CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie. 

From 1981 to 1982, James Garner returned to his Maverick role in a revival of the series entitled Bret Maverick.  NBC cancelled the series after one season, despite decent ratings.

In 1991, Jim starred in Man of the People, alongside Kate Mulgrew, about a con man who fills in for his ex-wife on city council.  The series had fair ratings but was cancelled after only ten episodes.  In his biography, The Garner Files, Jim described the show as "short lived and rightly so."  

In 1993, Jim played the lead in Barbarians at the Gates, the true story of F. Ross Johnson, the president and CEO of RJR Nabisco.  The HBO movie earned nine Emmy nominations.  From 1994 to 1998, he reprised his role as Jim Rockford in a series of eight Rockford Files made-for-TV movies.  In 1995, he starred as Woodrow Call, a former lawman, in the TV miniseries, Streets of Laredo, a sequel to Lonesome Dove.

Jim portrayed  Hubert "Hue" Miller in four episodes of the medical drama Chicago Hope in the year 2000.  In 2002, he appeared as Chief Justice Thomas Brankin in all thirteen episodes of the Supreme Court drama First Monday. He also played the recurring role of Jim Egan in five 2005 episodes of the comedy/drama 8 Simple Rules.  Jim did some voice work, too.  In 2000, he provided the voice of God in all 13 episodes of the animated series God, the Devil and Bob.  In 2001, he provided the voice of Commander Rourke in the animated science fiction feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

On August 17, 1956, James Garner  married Lois Josephine Fleischman Clarke at the Beverly Hills court house.  Their wedding took place about two weeks after Jim spotted the aspiring actress at a political rally for Adlai Stevenson, the 1956 Democratic candidate for president.  They had met a few days earlier at a friend's barbecue. Jim's family opposed the marriage, contending that his background was too different from Lois'.  Jim, on the other hand, thought they complimented each other.

Lois, who was Jewish, had a 7-year-old daughter, Kimberly, from a previous marriage.  Jim adopted Kim, who had been recovering from polio and the couple later had a daughter together named Greta "Gigi" Garner, born January 4, 1958.  

In 1970, Jim and Lois lived separately for three months.  In late 1979, about the time The Rockford Files stopped filming, they separated again, dividing time between living in Canada and "a rented house near the Valley."  They resumed living together in September of 1981   According to Jim, the separations occurred not because of marital difficulties but because he needed some time alone to deal with the stress of acting.  In 2002, he told television host Charlie Rose, that marriage is like the army. "Everyone complains," he said, "but you'd be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist."' 

James Garner and family in 1961

Jim and Lois remained married until Jim's death.  James Garner died on July 19, 2014 a month shy of their 58th wedding anniversary. Police and rescue personnel were called to his Brentwood, California home.  They found him dead of a heart attack at the age of 86.  During the course of his more than 50-year career, Jim racked up more than 80 film and TV movie credits.

James Garner in later years


* James Garner's wife, Lois, born July 6, 1923 and she passed away at her home on October 21, 2021.  She was 98 years old at the time of her death. The daughter of Samuel Hillis Fleischman and Sarah Doltz. Lois was raised in Los Angeles and she was an avid art collector.

* Jim's brother, Jack Bumgarner, died in 2011.  His other brother, Charlie, passed away in 1985.

* Jim's Maverick co-star, Jack Kelly, appeared with Jim in two 1977 episodes of The Rockford Files: "The Becker Connection" (Season 3, Episode 16, Air Date: February 11, 1977) and "Beamer's Last Case" (Season 4, Episode 1, Air Date: September 16, 1977)..  Jack died on November 7, 1992 in Huntington Beach, California.  He was 65 years old at the time of his death.  

* Jim became fascinated with car racing after appearing with Eva Marie Saint in the 1996 film Grand Prix 

* James Garner and Mariette Hartley appeared in a string of TV commercials for Polaroid cameras from the late 1970s into the 1980s.  The ads were hugely successful, mostly due to the chemistry between Jim and the droll Mariette Hartley.  Their banter was snappy and snarky and the two worked so well together that many viewers mistakenly assumed that Mariette Harley was Jim's real wife.  

Below is a photo of Jim and Mariette Hartley in Polaroid commercial.

* In 1983, Jim sued Universal Studios for 16.5 million U.S. in a breach of contract dispute in connection with The Rockford Files.

* Jim earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Leading Actor category for his performance as a widowed pharmacist in the film Murphy's Romance (1985), co-starring Sally Field.  

* In February of 2005, James Garner received the Screen Actors Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award.  Jim was nominated for 15 Emmy Awards during his television career.  In 1977, he won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a a Drama Series for The Rockford Files.  In 1987, he received another Emmy as executive producer of Promise, a 1986 made-for-television drama, in which he starred as Bob Beuhler, a man who returns to his hometown after his mother's death and has to take responsibility for the care of his mentally ill younger brother, D.J., played by James Woods.

* After the death of actor James Coburn in 2002, Garner took Coburn's place as TV commercial voiceover for Chevrolet's "Like a Rock" advertising campaign.

* In the 2004 film The Notebook, Jim portrayed the older version of the Ryan Gosling character.  The Screen Actors Guild nominated him as best actor for best actor for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role.

In  2011, Simon & Shuster published James Garner's autobiography, The Garner Files: A Memoir.  The memoir was co-written with nonfiction author Jon Winokur.  It includes a heartfelt introduction by Julie Andrews.  Jim and Julie became friends while working on two feature films together: The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Victor/Victoria (1982),   They also co-starred in One Special Night, a 1999 television movie in which they played two lonely people stranded overnight in a blizzard at Christmastime.

SOURCES:  Los Angeles Times, "James Garner dies at 86,  TV anti-hero of 'Maverick,' 'Rockford Files,'" Dennis McLellan, July 20, 2014; Yahoo TV, "How a Random Moment on La Cienga Launched James Garner's Acting Career," by Elizabeth Durand Streisand,, July 21, 2014; Country Living, "James Garner and Lois Clarke Dated for 14 Days Before Getting Married," by Maria Carter, August 18, 2017; Los Angeles Times, Obituary: Lois Josephine Garner, November 6, 2021; Wikipedia Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

- Joanne

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