James Garner, disarming leading man of film and television, dies at 86

Actor James Garner, "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files" star, is found dead at his Los Angeles home at age 86. (Reuters)
July 20

James Garner, a ruggedly handsome and disarming leading man of film and television who was best known for his series “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” and who delivered compelling portrayals of wartime cowards, alcoholics and self-centered tycoons, died July 19 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.

Los Angeles police confirmed the death to the Associated Press. No immediate cause was reported, but he had a stroke a few years ago.

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales once wrote that Mr. Garner embodied “the crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American masculinity.” The actor’s long success on television, usually as a droll and reluctant hero, was how he was chiefly remembered despite acclaimed performances in movies such as “The Great Escape” (1963), “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), “Victor/Victoria” (1982) and “Murphy's Romance” (1985), the last earning him an Academy Award nomination.

Mr. Garner's star-making role was that of vagabond gambler Bret Maverick on the ABC western “Maverick” from 1957 to 1960. The show satirized the traditional genre and established Mr. Garner in the public’s mind as an amiable antihero. He played a down-and-out private investigator on “The Rockford Files,” a detective drama that ran on NBC from 1974 to 1980, and won an Emmy Award as lead actor.

Both immensely popular TV shows threatened to overshadow a career of more than 50 movies. On the movie screen, his best-known roles suited Mr. Garner’s talent at conveying sympathy even in less-than-heroic parts.

In director Arthur Hiller’s “The Americanization of Emily,” Mr. Garner played an admiral’s aide who refuses combat duty during World War II. New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther praised Mr. Garner’s “taut and stalwart perseverance in acting an unregenerate coward” with no wish to die a hero.

Mr. Garner’s co-star was Julie Andrews, with whom he later appeared in Blake Edwards’s cross-dressing farce “Victor/Victoria” as a Chicago gangster with a surprisingly open mind toward gender roles.

Mr. Garner played a resourceful prisoner of war in “The Great Escape,” an unenthusiastic gunslinger in “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969) and half of the interracial team of 19th-century con artists in “Skin Game” (1971) with Louis Gossett Jr.

In one of his most subtle film performances, Mr. Garner played a widowed Arizona pharmacist in Martin Ritt’s “Murphy’s Romance.” Reviewers praised Mr. Garner and co-star Sally Field, playing a single mother who starts a horse ranch, for elevating an otherwise corny drama.

Mr. Garner, who became depressed after the “Rockford” series ended, enjoyed a career renaissance starting in the 1980s, mostly in made-for-television dramas that brought him multiple Emmy nominations.

They included “Heartsounds” (1984), about a doctor who suffers a heart attack and endures the indignities of hospital protocol; “My Name is Bill W.” (1989), about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (with James Woods in the title role) and in which Mr. Garner portrayed an alcoholic surgeon; and “Promise” (1986), as a carefree middle-aged bachelor who must suddenly take care of his schizophrenic brother (Woods). Mr. Garner shared an Emmy for producing “Promise.”

In addition, he received an Emmy nomination for playing the wheeler-dealer chief executive of the conglomerate RJR Nabisco who tries to buy the company in “Barbarians at the Gate” (1993), based on the best-seller by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar.

Of Mr. Garner’s performance as F. Ross Johnson in “Barbarians,” Shales wrote that he was “vigorous, roguish, resplendent, a deranged joy to behold.”

Mr. Garner also was a pitchman for Polaroid instant cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In more than 250 television advertisements, he and actress Mariette Hartley played a sparring couple so convincingly that many viewers thought they were married.

A frustrated Hartley made a T-shirt that said, “I Am Not Mrs. James Garner.”

Mr. Garner said he did not regard being a corporate spokesman as a step down for a performer of his stature. He noted that Laurence Olivier also had endorsed the cameras, adding, “I figured, what’s good enough for Lord Olivier is good enough for me.”

James Scott Bumgarner was born April 7, 1928, in Norman, Okla. He said he grew “very, very independent” from a young age, after an unhappy early life that included his mother's death and a stepmother’s bullying. He held dozens of odd jobs and served nine months in the Merchant Marine before he was overcome by seasickness.

He received two awards of the Purple Heart for wounds during his Army service in the Korean War and then found stage work through a childhood friend who had become a theatrical producer. He had a nonspeaking role as a military judge in the national touring production of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” and said he “swiped” most of his acting style from watching Henry Fonda in the play.

Mr. Garner began earning small parts in television and movies and made an immediate impression among female viewers as a contract actor at Warner Bros. film studios. After playing Marlon Brando’s Marine Corps sidekick in “Sayonara” (1957), Mr. Garner won the lead role in the action drama “Darby’s Rangers” (1958) when Charlton Heston dropped out over a salary dispute.

Despite tepid reviews for his early film work, Mr. Garner’s career was unharmed. He had become a sensation in “Maverick.”

Mr. Garner left the show in the middle of a writer's strike in 1960 and sued for release from a Warner Bros. contract that he said kept his salary artificially low. After a court fight, the actor prevailed in 1961 and began a prolific career in movies.

He starred in a series of sex comedies, including “The Thrill of it All” and “Move Over, Darling” (both in 1963 opposite Doris Day), and moved on to action films such as the wartime drama “36 Hours” (1965) with Eva Marie Saint, the amnesia caper “Mister Buddwing” (1966) and the race car melodrama “Grand Prix” (1966), a film he also produced. His other films included the gritty western “Duel at Diablo” (1966) with Sidney Poitier, and he was an appealingly gruff private eye in “Marlowe” (1969).

Mr. Garner remained a movie star through recent years, usually playing a graying version of his masculine persona — a retired president in “My Fellow Americans” (1996) and a former astronaut in “Space Cowboys” (2000). Clint Eastwood, his co-star in the latter, once called Mr. Garner “the Fred Astaire of tough guys, making it all look so effortless.”

Though Mr. Garner seemed to convey an easygoing likability onscreen — as recently as 2004 playing the narrator in the sudsy romantic drama “The Notebook” — he went out of his way to play down any comparisons to his real life.

He acknowledged sliding into depression toward the end of “The Rockford Files,” when he suddenly quit the series and sued the producers for $22.5 million. He said that he, as a sizable stakeholder in the show, had been denied his share of the net profits. The matter was settled out of court.

The detective series also took a physical toll on Mr. Garner, who performed many of the stunts. He briefly separated from his wife because of stress from the show.

He had married the former Lois Clarke in 1956. He had a daughter, Gigi, and a stepdaughter, Kimberly. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

Mr. Garner said he most valued collegiality on the set, and it tended to bring out his best performances. One case he cited was “Murphy’s Romance.”

Co-star Field told a CBS News reporter of the making of that movie, “He’s so profoundly sexy, and maybe the best kiss I ever had in my life, which was on camera, believe it or not.”

Mr. Garner replied, “I think she’s had a very sheltered life. I mean, poor baby, if that’s the best.”

Thinking further, he added, “I’ve had a couple of them say that. I might not be a bad kisser at all.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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