Hand color tinted photo of James Garner as Jim Rockford from the 1970s television series, The Rockford Files
James Garner (born James Scott Bumgarner; April 7, 1928 – July 19, 2014) was an American actor, producer, and voice artist. He starred in
several television series over more than five decades, including such popular roles as Bret Maverick in the 1950s western comedy series
Maverick and Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, and played leading roles in more than 50 theatrical films, including The Great Escape (1963)
with Steve McQueen, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria (1982), Murphy’s
Romance (1985), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, Space Cowboys (2000) with Clint Eastwood, and The Notebook (2004).
Garner was born in Norman, Oklahoma on April 7, 1928. He was the youngest of three sons of Weldon Warren Bumgarner and Mildred Scott (Meek).
His older brothers were Jack Garner (1926–2011) and Charles Bumgarner, a school administrator who died in 1984. His family was Methodist. His
mother died when he was 5 years old. After their mother’s death, Garner and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. Garner was reunited
with his family in 1934, when Weldon remarried.
Garner’s father remarried several times. Garner came to hate one of his stepmothers, Wilma, who beat all three boys (especially him). He said
that his stepmother also punished him by forcing him to wear a dress in public. When he was 14 years old, he fought with her, knocking her
down and choking her to keep her from killing him in retaliation. She left the family and never returned. His brother Jack later commented,
“She was a damn no-good woman”. Garner’s last stepmother was Grace, who he said he loved and called “Mama Grace”, and felt that she was more
of a mother to him than anyone else had been.
Shortly after his father’s marriage to Wilma broke up, his father moved to Los Angeles, leaving Garner and his brothers in Norman. After
working at several jobs he disliked, Garner joined the United States Merchant Marine at age 16 near the end of World War II. He liked the work
and his shipmates, but he suffered from chronic seasickness.
After the war, Garner joined his father in Los Angeles and enrolled at Hollywood High School, where he was voted the most popular student. A
high school gym teacher recommended him for a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits. It paid well ($25 an hour), but in his first interview for
the Archives of American Television, he said he hated modeling; he soon quit and returned to Norman. He played football and basketball at
Norman High School), and competed on the track and golf teams. However, he dropped out in his senior year. In a 1976 Good Housekeeping
magazine interview, he admitted, “I was a terrible student and I never actually graduated from high school, but I got my diploma in the Army.”
He enlisted in the National Guard, serving his first 7 months in California. He then went to Korea for 14 months, as a rifleman in the 5th
Regimental Combat Team during the Korean War. He was wounded twice, first in the face and hand by shrapnel fire from a mortar round, and the
second time in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dove headfirst into a foxhole. Garner received the Purple Heart in
Korea for the first wound. He qualified for a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: “As the result of friendly fire while actively
engaging the enemy”), but he did not actually receive it until 1983, 32 years after the event. Garner was a self-described “scrounger” for his
company in Korea, a role he later played in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily.
In 1954, a friend named Paul Gregory, whom Garner had met while attending Hollywood High School, persuaded Garner to take a nonspeaking role
in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, where he was able to study Henry Fonda night after night. During the week of
Garner’s death, TCM broadcast most of his movies, introduced by Robert Osborne, who said that Fonda’s gentle, sincere persona rubbed off on
Garner, greatly to Garner’s benefit.
Garner subsequently moved to television commercials and eventually to television roles. In 1955, Garner was considered for the lead role in
Cheyenne, but that role went to Clint Walker because the casting director could not reach Garner in time (according to Garner’s
autobiography), and Garner wound up playing an Army officer in the pilot, instead. His first film appearances were in The Girl He Left Behind
and Toward the Unknown in 1956.
In 1957, he had a supporting role in the TV anthology series episode on Conflict entitled “Man from 1997,” portraying Gloria Talbott’s (as
Maureen) brother “Red”; the show stars Jacques Sernas as Johnny Vlakos and Charlie Ruggles as elderly Mr. Boyne, a librarian from 1997, and
involved a 1997 Almanac that was mistakenly left in the past by Boyne and found by Johnny in a bookstore. The series’ producer Roy Huggins
noted in his Archive of American Television interview that he subsequently cast Garner as the lead in Maverick because of Garner’s comedic
facial expressions while playing scenes in Man from 1997 that were not originally written to be comical.
He changed his last name from Bumgarner to Garner after the studio had credited him as “James Garner” without permission. He then legally
changed it upon the birth of his first child, when he decided she had too many names.
Garner was closely advised by financial adviser Irving Leonard, who also advised Clint Eastwood in the late 1950s and 1960s. After several
feature film roles, including Sayonara with Marlon Brando, Garner got his big break playing the role of professional gambler Bret Maverick in
the comedy Western series Maverick from 1957 to 1960.
Only Garner and series creator Roy Huggins thought Maverick could compete with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show. The show almost
immediately made Garner a household name. Various actors had recurring roles as Maverick foils, including Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as “Dandy Jim
Buckley”, Richard Long as “Gentleman Jack Darby”, Leo Gordon as “Big Mike McComb”, and Diane Brewster as “Samantha Crawford” (Huggins’
mother’s maiden name).
Garner was the lone star of Maverick for the first seven episodes, but production demands forced the studio, Warner Brothers, to create a
Maverick brother, Bart, played by Jack Kelly. This allowed two production units to film different story lines and episodes simultaneously. The
series also featured popular cross-over episodes featuring both Maverick brothers, including the famous “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres”, upon
which the first half of the 1973 movie The Sting appears to be based, according to Roy Huggins’ Archive of American Television interview.
Garner and Clint Eastwood staged an epic fistfight in an episode entitled “Duel at Sundown”, in which Eastwood plays a vicious gunslinger.
Critics were positive about Garner and Jack Kelly’s chemistry, but Garner quit the series after the third season because of a dispute with
Garner did make one fourth-season Maverick appearance, in an episode filmed in third season but held back. The studio attempted to replace
Garner’s character with a Maverick cousin who had lived in Britain long enough to pick up an English accent, portrayed by Roger Moore, but
Moore quit the series after filming only 14 episodes as Beau Maverick. Warner Brothers also dressed Robert Colbert, a Garner look-alike, in
Bret Maverick’s outfit and called the character Brent, but Brent Maverick did not have a chance to catch on with viewers since Colbert made
only two episodes toward the end of the season. This left the rest of the series run to Kelly, alternating with reruns of episodes with
Garner. Garner still received billing in these newly produced Kelly episodes, aired in the 1961–62 season, though he did not appear in them
and had left the series two years previously, but the studio reversed the billing at the beginning of each show and in advertisements during
the fifth season, billing Kelly above Garner.
When Charlton Heston turned down the lead role in Darby’s Rangers before Garner’s departure from Maverick, Garner was selected and performed
well in the role. As a result of Garner’s performance in Darby’s Rangers, coupled with his Maverick popularity, Warner Brothers subsequently
gave him lead roles in other films, such as Up Periscope and Cash McCall.
1960s: Film career peak
After his acrimonious departure from Warner Bros. in the 1960s he starred in such films as The Children’s Hour (1962) with Audrey Hepburn and
Shirley MacLaine, Boys’ Night Out (1962) with Kim Novak and Tony Randall, The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and Move Over, Darling, a
1963 remake of My Favorite Wife also starring Doris Day in which Garner played Cary Grant’s role. The remake began as Something’s Got to Give,
but was recast and retitled after Marilyn Monroe died and co-star Dean Martin chose not to continue with a new actress.
Next came the war dramas The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen, The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and 36 Hours
(1965) with Eva Marie Saint, the romantic comedy The Art of Love (1965) with Dick Van Dyke, and the westerns Duel at Diablo (1966) with Sidney
Poitier, and as Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967) with Jason Robards, Jr. as Doc Holliday, along with nine other theatrical releases during
the decade. In the smash hit The Great Escape, Garner played the second lead for the only time during the decade, supporting fellow ex-TV
series cowboy McQueen among a cast of British and American screen veterans including Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum,
James Coburn, and Charles Bronson in a story depicting a mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp based on a true story. The film was
released in the same month as The Thrill Of It All, giving Garner two films at the box office at the same time.
The Americanization of Emily, a literate antiwar D-Day comedy, featured a screenplay written by Paddy Chayefsky and has remained Garner’s
favorite of all his work. In 1963, exhibitors voted him the 16th most popular star in the US.
Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer, left Garner with a fascination for car racing that he often explored by actually racing during the
ensuing years. The expensive Cinerama epic did not fare as well as expected at the box office.
In 1969, Garner played Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in Marlowe, a detective drama featuring an early karate scene with Bruce Lee. The
same year, Garner scored a hit with the comedy Western Support Your Local Sheriff! featuring Walter Brennan and Jack Elam.
In 1971, Garner returned to television in an offbeat series, Nichols. The motorcycle-riding antihero character was killed in what became the
final episode of the single-season series. Garner was recast as the character’s more normal twin brother, in the hopes of creating a more
popular series with few cast changes. According to Garner’s 1999 videotaped Archive of American Television interview, not only did the network
change the name of the series to James Garner as Nichols, but Garner had Nichols killed in the last episode so that a sequel could never be
The year 1971 also had him star in Support Your Local Gunfighter! (with many similarities to Support Your Local Sheriff!), and the frontier
comedy Skin Game, featuring Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr. as con men pretending to be a slave and his owner during the pre-Civil War era. The
following year, Garner played a modern sheriff investigating a murder in They Only Kill Their Masters with Katherine Ross. He appeared in two
films co-starring Vera Miles as his leading lady, One Little Indian (1973) featuring Jodie Foster in an early minor role and The Castaway
Cowboy (1974) with Robert Culp, before returning to television with a new detective series.
The Rockford Files
In the 1970s, Roy Huggins had an idea to remake Maverick, but this time as a modern-day private detective. Huggins worked with co-creator
Stephen J. Cannell, and the pair tapped Garner to attempt to rekindle the success of Maverick, eventually recycling many of the plots from the
original series. Starting with the 1974 season, Garner appeared as private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. He appeared for
six seasons, for which he received an Emmy Award for Best Actor in 1977. Veteran character actor Noah Beery, Jr. (Noah Beery, Sr.’s son and
Wallace Beery’s nephew) played Rockford’s father, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford. Gretchen Corbett portrayed Rockford’s lawyer and sometime lover,
Beth Davenport, until she left the series over a salary dispute with the studio. Garner also invited another familiar actor, Joe Santos, to
play Rockford’s friend in the Los Angeles Police Department, Detective Dennis Becker. Rounding out the cast was a character actor and friend
of Garner’s who had previously co-starred with him on Nichols, Stuart Margolin, playing Jim’s ex-cell mate and treacherous “friend” Angel
Martin. In the first episode of season six, “Paradise Cove”, Mariette Hartley guest-starred as Court Auditor Althea Morgan.
Garner had previously appeared with Rockford Files co-star Hartley in a series of Polaroid Camera commercials. After six seasons, The Rockford
Files was cancelled in 1980. Although low ratings were primarily to blame, the physical toll on Garner was also an issue. Appearing in nearly
every scene of the series, doing many of his own stunts — including one that injured his back — was wearing him out. A knee injury from his
National Guard days worsened in the wake of the continuous jumping and rolling, and he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1979.
Margolin said of his longtime colleague that despite Garner’s health problems in the later years of The Rockford Files, he would often work
long shifts, unusual for a starring actor, staying to do off-camera lines with other actors, doing his own stunts despite his knee problems.
When Garner later made The Rockford Files television movies, he said that 22 people (with the exception of series co-star Beery, who died late
in 1994) came out of retirement to participate.
In July 1983, Garner filed suit against Universal Studios for US$16.5 million in connection with his ongoing dispute from The Rockford Files.
The suit charged Universal with “breach of contract; failure to deal in good faith and fairly; and fraud and deceit.” Garner alleged that
Universal was “creatively accounting”, two words that are now part of the Hollywood lexicon. The suit was eventually settled out of court in
1989. As part of the agreement, Garner could not disclose the amount of the settlement.
“The industry is like it always has been. It’s a bunch of greedy people,” he stated in 1990. Garner sued Universal again in 1998 for $2.2
million over syndication royalties. In this suit, he charged the studio with “deceiving him and suppressing information about syndication.” He
was supposed to receive $25,000 per episode that ran in syndication, but Universal charged him “distribution fees”. He also felt that the
studio did not release the show to the highest bidder for the episode reruns.
The New Maverick
Garner and Jack Kelly reappeared as Bret and Bart Maverick in a 1978 made-for-television film entitled The New Maverick, which served as the
pilot for a failed series, Young Maverick, starring Charles Frank as a younger cousin named Ben Maverick. The series itself, which only
featured Garner for a few moments at the beginning of the first show, was canceled so rapidly, some of the episodes filmed were never
After the abrupt disappearance of Young Maverick two seasons earlier, an attempt to make a “Maverick” series without Garner, he returned to
his earlier TV role in 1981 in the revival series Bret Maverick, but NBC unexpectedly canceled the show after only one season despite
reasonably good ratings. Critics noted that most of the scripts did not measure up to the first series. Jack Kelly (Bart Maverick) was slated
to become a series regular had the show been picked up for another season, and he appeared in the last scene of the final episode in a
surprise guest appearance.
During the 1980s, Garner played dramatic roles in a number of television films, including Heartsounds (with Mary Tyler Moore), Promise (with
Piper Laurie), and My Name Is Bill W. In 1984, he played the lead in Joseph Wambaugh’s The Glitter Dome for HBO Pictures, which was being
directed by his Rockford Files co-star Stuart Margolin. The film generated a mild controversy for a bondage sequence featuring Garner and co-
star Margot Kidder.
He was nominated for his only Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the movie Murphy’s Romance opposite Sally Field. Field, and director
Martin Ritt, had to fight the studio, Columbia Pictures, to have Garner cast, since he was regarded as a TV actor by then (despite having co-
starred in the box office hit Victor Victoria opposite Julie Andrews two years earlier). Columbia did not want to make the movie, because it
had no “sex or violence” in it. But because of the success of Norma Rae (1979), with the same star (Field), director, and screenplay writing
team (Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch), and with Field’s new production company (Fogwood Films) producing, Columbia agreed. Columbia
wanted Marlon Brando to play the part of Murphy, so Field and Ritt had to insist on Garner. Part of the deal from the studio, which at that
time was owned by The Coca-Cola Company, included an eight-line sequence of Field and Garner saying the word “Coke”, and also having Coke
signs appear prominently in the film. In A&E’s Biography of Garner, Field reported that her on-screen kiss with Garner was the best cinematic
kiss she had ever experienced.
Garner played Wyatt Earp in two very different movies shot 21 years apart, Hour of the Gun in 1967 and Sunset in 1988. The first film was a
realistic depiction of the O.K. Corral shootout and its aftermath, while the second centered around a fictional adventure shared by Earp and
silent movie cowboy star Tom Mix. The film featured Bruce Willis as Mix in only his second movie role. Although Willis was billed over Garner,
the film actually gave more screen time and emphasis to Earp.
For the second half of the 1980s, Garner appeared in several of the North American market Mazda television commercials as an on-screen
In 1991, Garner starred in Man of the People, a television series about a con man chosen to fill an empty seat on a city council, with Kate
Mulgrew and Corinne Bohrer. Despite reasonably fair ratings, the show was canceled after only 10 episodes. In 1993, Garner played the lead in
a well-received HBO movie, the true story Barbarians at the Gate, and went on to reprise his role as Jim Rockford in eight The Rockford Files
made-for-TV movies beginning the following year. Practically everyone in the original cast of recurring characters returned for the new
episodes except Noah Beery, Jr., who had died in the interim.
In 1994, Garner played Marshal Zane Cooper in a movie version of Maverick, with Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick (in the end it is revealed that
Garner’s character is the father of Gibson’s Maverick) and Jodie Foster as a gambling lass with a fake Southern accent. In 1995, he played
lead character Woodrow Call, an ex-lawman, in the TV miniseries sequel to Lonesome Dove entitled Streets of Laredo, based on Larry McMurtry’s
book. In 1996, Garner and Jack Lemmon teamed up in My Fellow Americans, playing two former presidents who uncover scandalous activity by their
successor (Dan Aykroyd) and are pursued by murderous NSA agents. In addition to a major recurring role during the last part of the run of TV
series Chicago Hope, Garner also starred in two short-lived series, the animated God, the Devil and Bob and First Monday, in which he played a
Supreme Court justice.
Marriage and family
Garner was married to Lois Josephine Fleischman Clarke, whom he met at an “Adlai Stevenson for President” rally in 1956. They married 14 days
later on August 17, 1956. “We went to dinner every night for 14 nights. I was just absolutely nuts about her. I spent $77 on our honeymoon,
and it about broke me.” According to Garner, “Marriage is like the Army; everyone complains, but you’d be surprised at the large number of
people who re-enlist.”
When Garner and Clarke married, her daughter Kim from a previous marriage was seven years old and recovering from polio. Garner had one
daughter with Lois: Greta “Gigi” Garner. In an interview in Good Housekeeping with Garner, his wife, and two daughters conducted at their home
that was published in March 1976, Gigi’s age was given as 18 and Kim’s as 27.
In late 1979, Garner separated from his wife (around the time The Rockford Files stopped filming), splitting his time between living in Canada
and “a rented house in the Valley.” The two reconciled in September 1981, and remained married for the rest of his life. Garner died less than
a month before their 58th wedding anniversary.
On Saturday evening, July 19, 2014, police and rescue personnel were summoned to Garner’s Los Angeles-area home, where they found the actor
dead at the age of 86. Garner had suffered a massive heart attack caused by coronary artery disease.He is survived by his wife, daughters and