Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reluctant-hero roles suited actor

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James Garner, a master of light comedy who shot to fame in the 1950s as the charming and dry-witted gambler on the TV western Maverick and later won an Emmy as the unconventional Los Angeles private eye on The Rockford Files, has died. He was 86.

Garner died Saturday at his home, his publicist Jennifer Allen said. Garner, who lived in Los Angeles, underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1988 and suffered a stroke in 2008. He had been in poor health for some time but the cause of his death was not immediately known.

Once described by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales as having "embodied the crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American masculinity" in his iconic roles as Maverick and Rockford, the Oklahoma-born Garner amassed more than 80 movie and TV-movie credits during his career of more than 50 years.

An off-screen Hollywood maverick who successfully battled two studios in court, Garner easily moved between small screen and big screen in roles ranging from light comedy to drama.

"I have long thought that Jim Garner was one of the best actors around," filmmaker Robert Altman, who directed him in the 1980 comedy Health, told Esquire magazine in 1979. "He is often overlooked because he makes it look so easy, and that is not easy to do," Altman said.

Garner was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as a widowed small-town pharmacist opposite Sally Field's much younger single mother in the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy's Romance.

His films include The Children's Hour, The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, The Thrill of It All, Move Over, Darling, Grand Prix, Support Your Local Sheriff, Marlowe, Victor/Victoria, Space Cowboys and The Notebook.

It was television that made Garner a household name, and once he returned to series TV in the early 1970s after a decade starring in films, he remained a welcome presence on the small screen.

Signed as a contract player at Warner Bros. in the mid-1950s, Garner -- a handsome, 6-3 Korean War veteran -- launched his Hollywood career with guest shots on TV shows such as Cheyenne and small parts in a few films.

He was on location in Japan playing the supporting role of Marlon Brando's Marine Corps captain buddy in the 1957 romantic drama Sayonara when he learned Warner television wanted to test him for a new series called Maverick.

The hour-long western-adventure series made its debut on ABC in September 1957. Although it began as a relatively straight western, the writers quickly began injecting humour into the scripts, a development Garner handled with aplomb.

As Bret Maverick, the dapper roving gambler, Garner was anything but a traditional western hero: He was, as Garner later put it, a reluctant hero. In 1959, the show won an Emmy for best western series. Maverick ran until 1962, but Garner left the show in 1960.

He had been unhappy with Warner Bros. over his relatively low salary and the studio's control over his career. And when the studio suspended him without pay during a writers strike, he successfully sued and got out of his contract.

Garner starred in 21 films from 1961 through 1971, the year he returned to television as the star of Nichols, an NBC western set in 1914 Arizona. The show lasted a year.

Then came The Rockford Files, which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1980 and starred Garner as private eye Jim Rockford.

The action-drama was devoid of private-eye clichés. Instead of a secretary, Rockford had an answering machine, and instead of an office, he worked out of the weather-beaten house trailer.

The series earned Garner an Emmy in 1977.

The show abruptly ended in 1980. Under doctors' orders to take time off because of a bleeding ulcer, Garner could not continue working and NBC announced a replacement series.

In 1983, Garner filed a lawsuit against Universal alleging the studio had used so-called creative accounting to cheat him out of his 37.5 per cent share of the profits for The Rockford Files from syndication and foreign sales. In his 2011 memoir The Garner Files, Garner said the case was settled "on the courthouse steps" in 1989.

He returned to his role as Rockford in eight Rockford Files TV movies in the '90s and also co-starred that decade with Mel Gibson in the 1994 film Maverick.

The youngest of three sons, he was born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928, in Norman, Okla. His mother died when he was four and his father, who ran a country store, later remarried. It was not a happy home for Garner and his brothers, Charles and Jack. Their stepmother, Garner later recalled, regularly beat them "with anything she could get hold of."

Near the end of the Second World War, the 16-year-old Garner dropped out of high school and joined the merchant marine. A victim of chronic seasickness, he soon quit and moved to Los Angeles, where his father lived.

After working in oilfields in Oklahoma and Texas and holding various odd jobs, Garner was drafted in 1950 during the Korean War. He served in the infantry and was wounded twice.

After his discharge, he returned to California and worked with his father as a carpet layer.

At a loss for what to do with his life, he fell into acting. Paul Gregory, a friend who years earlier encouraged Garner to become an actor, by then was a producer and agent. He took Garner on as a client.

Gregory soon put Garner in the Broadway-bound play he was producing: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, directed by Charles Laughton and featuring a cast that included Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan.

Within a year, Garner was at Warner Bros.

 

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2014 C2

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