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Chris Hicks: Garner's cocky style is the draw

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 4:59 p.m. MDT

Charles Frank, James Garner and Jack Kelly in Charles Frank, James Garner and Jack Kelly in "The New Maverick." (Warner home video)

James Garner has made some wonderful movies over the years, including "The Great Escape," "The Americanization of Emily," "Marlowe" and "Support Your Local Sheriff," among others. But his biggest claim to fame is a pair of television series: "Maverick" in 1957 and "The Rockford Files" in 1974.

Most of Garner's movies are on DVD now, including those named above, and so is the entire "Rockford Files" series, all six seasons. Even the first four (of eight) "Rockford" reunion movies made in the 1990s are available.

But for some reason, despite clamoring from fans, "Maverick" has never found its way to DVD, at least not in full season sets. Until now.

Finally, "Maverick: The Complete First Season" has been released (Warner, 1957-58, b/w, seven discs, 27 episodes, $39.98) and it holds up as one of the wittiest, most clever series of early television, giving young Garner a real showcase for the cocky but charming, wisecracking but warm screen persona that has served him well in so many subsequent starring roles.

 (Warner home video) (Warner home video)

Watching some of these episodes again is a good reminder of just how fine a line this show walked as both a traditional Western and a sly satire of the genre, the latter taking hold more as the show progressed, and how intelligent it was compared to some of the more action-oriented oaters of the time.

In 1957 the TV airwaves were overstuffed with Westerns, and "Maverick" had some difficulty finding its footing that first year. Watching episodes in chronological order, it's easy to see there was an evolution to Garner's character — and the program itself. Unlike today, in the 1950s a show was allowed time to breathe and find its way without worry of being canceled if the ratings didn't spike by Episode 6.

And there was strong competition from "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 the top-10 highest-rated shows of the season. Other Westerns that landed in the top 30 were "Cheyenne," "Zane Grey Theater," "Wagon Train," "Sugarfoot" and "Zorro."

But "Maverick" didn't show up on the charts until its second season, when it quickly shot up in the ratings to become the sixth most-watched show of the year. For its third season, "Maverick" landed at No. 19. In its final two years, after Garner left, the show faltered and eventually sank.

It's easy to see why audiences weren't quite sure what to make of "Maverick" when it started. Garner's charisma was evident from the initial episode, but Bret Maverick was just not like the other cowboy heroes on the air, he wasn't the straight shooter that, say, The Lone Ranger was, or Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers or Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke" — or any of the others.

In fact, it's fair to say Bret Maverick wasn't like any other leading character on TV at the time. An itinerant gambler who roams from town to town, he doesn't like to use his gun, doesn't like to fight and he is just as likely to turn down someone needing help as offer assistance. He's also up for mounting the occasional "grift" when a con game will serve his purposes. (Don't let anyone tell you "Maverick" didn't influence "The Sting.")

Because Garner played all of this with a twinkle in his eye and an obvious sense of humor, and because it's made clear that Maverick only pulls his scams on other scam artists or to help someone out of a jam, he gets away with it.

By the second season, "Maverick" had made its mark as go-to viewing thanks to word-of-mouth praise that quickly spread to make it one of the most popular shows on the air, and in the process it made Garner one of the most popular stars on television.

Garner had been signed to star as Bret Maverick and the show began with him as the sole lead character. But unlike so many other Westerns on the air that were half-hour shows, shooting this hourlong series on location began to take its toll rather quickly. So, in order to meet the demand of weekly episodes it was decided that another character should be brought in to alternate with Bret, so that the filming of various episodes could overlap. Thus, Bret's brother Bart, as played by Jack Kelly, came onboard.

The first seven episodes star Garner, then he and Kelly are in one together, and after that the alternating begins, although they do pair up for a few more episodes as well. It isn't hard to see that the writers and directors wanted to take advantage of Garner's talent for comedy, and his episodes tend to be more humorous than Kelly's, which lean more toward the serious.

But both characters try to use brains over brawn, and both love to quote their Pappy from time to time with memorably comic aphorisms: "Faint heart never filled a flush." "Marriage is the only game of chance I know of where both people can lose." "Flattery is like perfume; smell it but don't swallow it."

With his matinee-idol good looks, Kelly built his own following, but it was never quite as strong as Garner's. And when Garner eventually left the show after three seasons, Kelly just couldn't keep it afloat on his own. Other Maverick kin were brought in to help, including Roger Moore as an English cousin, but without Garner, the writing was on the wall.

Guests on this first-season set include Oscar-winner Jane Darwell, future "Mannix" Mike Connors, veteran actress (and Utah native) Marie Windsor, and, in a recurring role, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Dandy Jim Buckley (two episodes this season).

But even after all these years, Garner is the draw here. And since he's still around (he participated in last year's PBS "Pioneers of Television" documentary), it's a shame there are no bonus features allowing him to provide context for the series.

But fans won't mind. They'll be happy to have the show at all after such a long wait.

Why it took until 2012 for "Maverick's" first season to arrive on DVD remains a mystery. But here's hoping the second two (and most popular) seasons follow the road to DVD more quickly.

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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