James Garner had the kind of natural charisma that brings so much more to a motion-picture camera than merely a talent for acting out a role.
Oh, he could act too, which he proved in a number of shows dating back to the 1950s, but it was that combination of a charismatic personality, natural talent, athletic good looks, an easygoing charm and especially his down-to-earth, wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that allowed Garner to remain popular for more than half a century.
Garner died at age 86 on Saturday and is remembered as that rare performer who was embraced by audiences in every genre on both the big and small screens.
His two hit TV series, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” are unquestionably his biggest claims to fame, but Garner also starred in a wide variety of big-screen successes that hold up well today, including “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Marlowe,” “Support Your Local Sheriff,” “Victor/Victoria,” “The Notebook” and “Murphy’s Romance” (which earned him his only Oscar nomination), among many others.
After some stage experience, Garner landed a contract with Warner Bros. in the mid-1950s and appeared in a string of B-movies (“Toward the Unknown,” “The Girl He Left Behind,” “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend”) and TV guest shots (“Zane Grey Theater,” “Conflict,” “Cheyenne”).
Then he landed a larger role in an A-list movie as Marlon Brando’s buddy in “Sayonara” (1957), which led directly to his being given the lead in “Maverick,” a new Western TV series.
Unlike such tough, two-fisted cowboy sagas as “Gunsmoke,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and “The Restless Gun,” all of which were among 1957’s top 10 highest-rated shows, “Maverick” was a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the genre that still embraced its popular tropes.
What made it work was Garner. The show was about two roving gambler brothers (Garner as Bret, Jack Kelly as Bart) that found themselves involved in various scams and con games but got out by using their wits instead of their guns. During its second season, “Maverick” rose to No. 6 in the top 10.
Garner left “Maverick” after the third season in a contract dispute and parlayed his popularity into an A-list theatrical film career in the 1960s and ’70s, starring opposite Steve McQueen, Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angie Dickinson, Sidney Poitier, Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and other big stars of the period in popular wartime thrillers, domestic farces and Westerns before returning to television for a one-season semi-Western series “Nichols,” and then another hit show, “The Rockford Files.”
The successful private-eye shows that preceded “Rockford” were rough-and-tumble thrillers with gimmicks, such as “Peter Gunn,” who was a hip, sophisticated jazz-lover; “Mannix,” known for upping the violence quotient with both fisticuffs and shootouts; “Cannon,” who was overweight and had expensive taste; and “Ironside,” a police consultant who was in a wheelchair.
In the same way “Maverick” lampooned Westerns, “The Rockford Files” spoofed the detective genre by having Garner’s character, Jim Rockford, portrayed as a Los Angeles private detective living in a rundown trailer on the beach, taking on cases that left him underpaid (if paid at all) as he tried to talk himself out of sticky situations to avoid fistfights or gunplay. Once again, Garner’s natural charm and wit helped the show rise in popularity during its run, and afterward it achieved an iconic status.
After the series ended, Garner alternated comfortably between theatrical films and TV movies during the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s, including among the latter a number of “Rockford” reunions. He also starred in three more short-lived series. His last big-screen appearance was in the 2006 faith film “The Ultimate Gift,” which was elevated by his presence.
In 1994, along with more than 100 other movie critics, I had the opportunity of meeting Garner in New York during a round robin of interviews for Mel Gibson’s big-screen remake of “Maverick,” and although Garner kept his dark glasses on during the sessions, he was as affable in person as on the screen. (My wife happened to ride in an elevator with him later in the day and still hasn’t gotten over it.)
He talked about working with Gibson and director Richard Donner, and about co-star Jodie Foster, with whom Garner had made a movie 19 years earlier, when she was 10. “I’ve always admired her so much, and it was wonderful to work with her again.”
When asked what that 19-year-old movie was, Garner said, “It was a thing called ‘One Little Indian’ for Disney. And I hope they burned that film.”
Most interesting, however, was how Gibson, Donner and Foster fell all over themselves expressing admiration for Garner.
Perhaps Foster said it best, remembering when she was a 10-year-old and how she was struck by his innate likability. "I remember thinking, ‘I wish my mom would marry a guy like that.’ ”