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, whom he said he loved and called "Mama Grace", and felt that she was more of a mother to him than anyone else had been.
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."
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.
Garner enlisted in the California Army 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 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
In 1954, Paul Gregory, a friend 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 Maureen (Gloria Talbott)'s 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 due to his 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 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 1957-1960.
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.
Garner was the lone star of Maverick for the first seven episodes, but production demands forced the studio, Warner Brothers (Warners), 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 Warners.
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. Warners then 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. He still received billing in these newly produced Kelly episodes, aired in the 1961–62 season, although 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, Warners subsequently gave him lead roles in other films, such as Up Periscope and Cash McCall.
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 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. 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!
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 made.
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.
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 had to leave the series due to a salary dispute between the producers and 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.
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 broadcast.
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 spokesman.
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.
In 2000, after an operation to replace both knees, Garner appeared with Clint Eastwood (who had played a villain in the original Maverick series) as astronauts in the movie Space Cowboys, also featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland.
In 2001, Garner voiced Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. In 2002, following the death of James Coburn, Garner took over Coburn's role as TV commercial voiceover for Chevrolet's "Like a Rock" advertising campaign. Garner continued to voice the commercials until the end of the campaign. Also in 2002, he played Sandra Bullock's father in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (film) as Shepard James "Shep" Walker. After the death of John Ritter in 2003, Garner joined the cast of 8 Simple Rules as Grandpa Jim Egan (Cate's father) and remained with the series until it finished in 2005.
In 2004, Garner starred as the older version of Ryan Gosling's character in the film version of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook alongside Gena Rowlands as his wife, directed by Nick Cassavetes, Rowlands' son. The Screen Actors Guild nominated Garner as best actor for "Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role." In 2010, Garner voiced Shazam in Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.
On November 1, 2011, Simon & Schuster published Garner's autobiography The Garner Files: A Memoir. In addition to recounting his career, the memoir, co-written with nonfiction writer Jon Winokur, detailed the childhood abuses Garner suffered at the hands of his stepmother. It also offered frank, unflattering assessments of some of Garner's co-stars such as Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. In addition to recalling the genesis of most of Garner's hit films and television shows, the book also featured a section where the star provided individual critiques for every one of his acting projects accompanied by a star rating for each. Garner's three-time co-star Julie Andrews wrote the book's foreword. Lauren Bacall, Diahann Carroll, Doris Day, Tom Selleck, and Stephen J. Cannell, and many other Garner associates, friends, and relatives provided their memories of the star in the book's coda.
The "most explosive revelation" in his autobiography was that Garner smoked marijuana for much of his adult life. "I started smoking it in my late teens," Garner wrote.
Nominated for 15 Emmy Awards during his television career, Garner received the award in 1977 as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (The Rockford Files) and in 1987 as executive producer of Promise.
For his contribution to the film and television industry, Garner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard).
In 1990, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame that same year. In February 2005, he received the Screen Actors Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role that year, for The Notebook. When Morgan Freeman won that prize for his work in Million Dollar Baby, he led the audience in a sing-along of the original Maverick theme song, written by David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster.
In 2010, the Television Critics Association gave Garner its annual Career Achievement Award.
On April 21, 2006, a 10-foot-tall (3.0 m) bronze statue of Garner as Bret Maverick was unveiled in Garner's hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, with Garner present at the ceremony.
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, and 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.
Garner's knees became a chronic problem during the filming of The Rockford Files in the 1970s, with "six or seven knee operations during that time." In 2000, he underwent knee replacement surgery for both of them.
On April 22, 1988, Garner had quintuple bypass heart surgery. Though he recovered rapidly, he was advised to stop smoking. Garner quit smoking 17 years later.
Garner underwent surgery on May 11, 2008, following a severe stroke he had suffered two days earlier. His prognosis was reported to be "very positive."
Garner was an owner of the "American International Racers" (AIR) auto racing team from 1967 through 1969. Motorsports writer William Edgar and Hollywood director Andy Sidaris teamed with Garner for the racing documentary The Racing Scene, filmed in 1969 and released in 1970. The team fielded cars at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring endurance races, but is best known for Garner's celebrity status raising publicity in early off-road motor-sports events. In 1978, he was one of the inaugural inductees in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Garner signed a three-year sponsorship contract with American Motors Corporation (AMC). His shops prepared ten 1969 SC/Ramblers for the Baja 500 race. Garner did not drive in this event because of a film commitment in Spain that year. Nevertheless, seven of his cars finished the grueling race, taking three of the top five places in the sedan class. Garner also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1975, 1977, and 1985 (see: list of Indianapolis 500 pace cars).
Garner was an avid golfer for many years. Along with his brother, Jack, he played golf in high school. Jack even attempted a professional golfing career after a brief stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball farm system. Garner took it up again in the late 1950s to see if he could beat Jack. He was a regular for years at Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In February 1990 at the AT&T Golf Tournament, he won the Most Valuable Amateur Trophy. Garner appeared on Sam Snead's Celebrity Golf TV series which aired from 1960 – 1963. These matches were 9-hole charity events pitting Snead against Hollywood celebrities.
Garner was noted as an enthusiastic fan of the Raiders in the NFL, particularly when they played in Los Angeles between 1982 and 1994, when he regularly attended games and mixed with the players. He was also present when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII over the Washington Redskins in January 1984 at Tampa, Florida.
Garner was a supporter of the University of Oklahoma, often returning to Norman for school functions. When he attended Oklahoma Sooners football games, he frequently could be seen on the sidelines or in the press box. Garner received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at OU in 1995.
In 2003, to endow the James Garner Chair in the School of Drama, he donated $500,000, half of a pledged $1 million, for the first endowed position at the drama school. Tom H. Orr, the Director for the School of Drama (Acting/Camera Acting) and the Artistic Director of the University Theatre, currently holds the James Garner Chair at the university.
Garner was a strong Democratic Party supporter. From 1982, Garner gave at least $29,000 to Federal campaigns, of which over $24,000 was to Democratic Party candidates, including Dennis Kucinich (for Congress in 2002), Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and various Democratic committees and groups.
On August 28, 1963, Garner was one of several celebrities to join Martin Luther King, Jr. in the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." In his autobiography, Garner recalled sitting in the third row listening to King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
For his role in the 1985 CBS miniseries Space, the character's party affiliation was changed from Republican as in the book to reflect Garner's personal views. Garner said, "My wife would leave me if I played a Republican."
There was an effort by California Democratic party leaders, led by state Senator Herschel Rosenthal, to persuade Garner to seek the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in the 1990 election. However, future United States Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein received the nomination instead, losing to Republican Pete Wilson in the election.
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. He had suffered a massive heart attack caused by coronary artery disease. He had been in poor health since a severe stroke in 2008. He was survived by his wife and his daughters Greta and Kimberly.
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