James Garner, movie and TV legend, dies, police say

In this Feb. 5, 2005 file photo, James In this Feb. 5, 2005 file photo, James Garner, arrives for the 11th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. Actor James Garner, wisecracking star of TV's "Maverick" who went on to a long career on both small and big screen, died Saturday July 19, 2014 according to Los angeles police. He was 86. Photo Credit: AP / Chris Pizzello

advertisement | advertise on newsday

James Garner, who defined television's leading man over a span of decades in two iconic roles -- Rockford and Maverick -- died Saturday at his home in Brentwood, California, police and family said Sunday. He was 86 and had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2008.

Garner had been called TV's first "anti-hero," a term he rejected in favor of "reluctant hero."

Famously combative in some of his business relationships, particularly with two major studios, Warner Bros. and Universal, Garner crafted a far different style in the two roles that came to define his career.

Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford -- both urbane, witty, often even funny -- avoided violence, rarely if ever used guns, and were natural born skeptics who questioned the motives of others, and on occasion their own.

They wore neither a black hat nor white one, but various shades of gray. Television had never seen such complicated or conflicted leading men, and both were reflections to varying degrees of the man who played them.

Garner, who with his rugged good looks was quickly signed as a contract player at Warner's in the early '50s, initially seemed destined for a career on the big screen, where he had a handful of indelible roles.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

His first major part was alongside Marlon Brando in 1957's "Sayonara," based on the James Michener novel. He co-starred with Julie Andrews in "The Americanization of Emily," the 1964 movie about a cowardly cynic forced to hit the beach on D-Day as part of a film crew. A year earlier, he starred with his friend Steve McQueen, in "The Great Escape," about a mass prisoner escape in Poland during World War II.

Garner earned an Academy Award nomination in 1985 for his role in the romantic comedy, "Murphy's Romance" with Sally Field.

"There are few people on this planet I have adored as much as Jimmy Garner," Field said Sunday. "I cherish every moment I spent with him and relive them over and over in my head. He was a diamond."

Television was where Garner was to truly make his mark. He brawled with his studios to release him from his contracts for both "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files" but he could never escape their shadow or impact. "Rockford," which ran from 1974 until 1980, remains a staple of television syndication.

Born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1928, Garner -- his family name was Bumgarner until Warner's changed it -- had a tough impoverished childhood on the Great Plains. His mother died when he was four, and his alcoholic father married a woman who Garner has said beat his three sons.

Garner enlisted in the Merchant Marines at the end of World War II, but was later joined the Army's 24th Infantry Division during the Korean War.

Returning stateside he became interested in acting because, he would later explain in his memoir, it beat "laying carpet."

He appeared in a stage adaptation of "The Caine Mutiny," followed by the contract at Warner's, which after "Sayonara" cast him in a western about a riverboat gambler named Bret Maverick. Garner was initially unhappy about the role and wanted to stay in movies, but the series became an NBC hit almost immediately at launch in 1957.

Maverick was an unlikely western hero. He was suave, but somewhat disingenuous. He cheated at cards. And he had an uneasy relationship with the truth. Most of all, he avoided violence whenever possible.

Similarly, Rockford featured a detective with a criminal past who lived in a double-wide trailer, and was inordinately averse to violence. He was also bemused, standoffish and distrustful of authority figures.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The series was a major hit for NBC over its six-year-run, but it also took a physical toll on Garner who was hospitalized at one point. The studio sued him for missing work; he countersued and "Rockford" came to a bitter end. (A number of "Rockford" TV movies were made over the following years.)

Garner said later about cutting ties with the studio system that "if I was going to be a success, I wanted to be my own success. If I was going to be a failure, my own failure."

Garner is survived by his wife, former actress Lois Clarke, whom he married in 1957, and two daughters

-- With The Associated Press

Coming soon: Newsday's Entertainment newsletter, for the latest on celebs, TV, more.

Comments

Newsday.com now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: