Bret Maverick is the epitome of a poker-playing rounder, always seeking out high-stakes games and rarely remaining in one place for long. The show is generally credited with launching Garner's career, although he had already appeared in several movies, including Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend with Randolph Scott, and had filmed an important supporting role in Sayonara with Marlon Brando, which wasn't released until December 1957 but had been viewed by Huggins and the Warner Bros. staff casting their new television series. Maverick often bested The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show in the television ratings.
Huggins inverted the usual cowboy hero characteristics familiar to television and movie viewers of the time. Bret Maverick was vocally reluctant to risk his life, though he typically ended up being courageous in spite of himself. He frequently flimflammed adversaries, but only those who deserved it. Otherwise he was honest almost to a fault, in at least one case insisting on repaying a questionable large debt (in "According to Hoyle").
None of the Mavericks were particularly fast draws with a pistol. Bart once commented to a lady friend, "My brother Bret can outdraw me any day of the week, and he's known as the Second Slowest Gun in the West." However, it was almost impossible for anyone to beat them in any sort of a fistfight, perhaps the one cowboy cliché that Huggins left intact (reportedly at the insistence of the studio).
Critics have repeatedly referred to Bret Maverick as arguably the first TV anti-hero, and have praised the show for its photography and Garner's charisma and subtly comedic facial expressions.. Nonetheless, most TV anti-heroes, such as Eddie Haskell, Dr. Zachery Smith, and J. R. Ewing are at heart self-serving and egocentric, a description that does not fit any Maverick.
Though Garner was originally supposed to be the only Maverick, the studio eventually hired Jack Kelly to play brother Bart, starting with the eighth episode. The producers had realized that it took over a week to shoot a single episode, so Kelly was hired to rotate with Garner as the series lead, using two separate crews (while occasionally appearing together). In Bart's first episode, "Hostage!", in order to engender audience sympathy for the new character, the script called for him to be tied up and beaten by an evil police officer.
According to series creator Roy Huggins in his Archive of American Television interview, the two brothers were purposely written to be virtual clones, with no apparent differences inherent in the scripts whatsoever. This included being traveling poker players, loving money, professing to be cowards (despite voluminous evidence to the contrary), spouting intriguing words of advice their "Pappy" passed down to them, and carrying a $1,000 bill pinned to the inside of a coat for emergency purposes. There was however, one distinct—but accidental—difference between the two. Garner's episodes tended to be more comedic due to his obvious talent in that area, while Kelly's were inclined to be more dramatic. Huggins noted in the aforementioned Archive of American Television interview that Kelly, while funnier than Garner "off camera", dropped a funny line while shooting a scene "like a load of coal." Garner, at 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m), was also two inches (5 cm) taller than Kelly, leading a character in one episode ("Seed of Deception") to refer to Garner as "the big one" and the 6'1" Kelly as "the little one".
To get disappointed viewers used to the idea of a second Maverick, Garner filmed a series of brief vignettes that aired at the beginning of the Kelly-only episodes, where he would introduce the evening's story. To foster as much parity as possible, Kelly did the same in a Garner-only episode, "Black Fire", by appearing in the opening vignette to introduce the story and narrating the remainder of the episode. Roy Huggins observed in his videotaped Archive of American Television interview that the ratings for Kelly's episodes were always slightly higher during the first two seasons than Garner's. Huggins mentioned that he believed that this was a reflection of how well the audience liked Garner's episodes and the consequent word of mouth, so that viewers would be at their sets for the following episode, which would usually feature Kelly instead. The rating jumps for Kelly's episodes were tiny enough that they fell within the margin of error, according to Huggins in this interview, but he maintains that they were remarkable in that they were consistent.
While Kelly developed a following among the show's female fans, not everyone was happy with his addition to the cast. The chairman of Kaiser Aluminum, the series' main sponsor at the time, became so perturbed when Kelly was brought in (saying, "I paid for red apples and I get green apples!") that ABC had to make a new deal that cost the network a small fortune.
The episodes featuring both Garner and Kelly were audience favorites, with critics frequently citing the chemistry between the Maverick brothers. Bret and Bart often found themselves competing for women or money, or working together in some elaborate scheme to swindle someone who had just robbed one of them.
Though it was never said explicitly, Bret appears to be the older, stating once in response to someone mentioning lightning striking twice in the same place, "That's just what my Pappy said when he looked in my brother Bart's crib." In real life, Kelly was seven months older than Garner. Kelly wound up being the only Maverick to appear in all five seasons of the series in the wake of Garner's contentious departure after the third season to successfully pursue a film career.
Though very popular, Garner quit over a contract dispute with the studio after the series' third year and was replaced by Roger Moore as cousin Beau, nephew of Beau "Pappy" Maverick. Sean Connery turned down the role, but accepted a free trip to America; the following decade, Moore would replace Connery as James Bond in the 007 film series.
Beau's first appearance was in the season four opener, "The Bundle From Britain", in which he returns from an extended stay in England to meet cousin Bart. Moore had earlier played a completely different role in the episode "The Rivals", a drawing room comedy episode with Garner in which Moore's character switched identities with Bret.
Beau's amusingly self-described "slight English accent" was explained by his having spent the last few years in England. Moore was exactly the same age as Kelly and brought a flair for light comedy and a physical similarity to Garner fitting the show—Moore even looked like the profile drawing (apparently based on Garner) of the card player at the beginning of each episode. Moore noted in his autobiography that the producers told him he was not being brought in to replace Garner. However, when he got to wardrobe, all of his costumes had the name "Jim Garner" scratched out on the tags. Moore also mentioned in the book that he, Garner, Kelly, and their wives would regularly gather at the Kelly home for what they called "poker school".
There was also a dispute between the cast and producers during this time over the long hours they were putting in each day. The producers placed a time clock in the makeup department and required the actors to punch in. Moore brought his own makeup, and refused to do so. Moore wrote in his book that Kelly was "similarly minded, and one day took the time clock and used it as a football."
Moore had already played Maverick dialogue written for Garner in his earlier series, The Alaskans. The studio had a policy of recycling scripts through their various television series to save money on writers, changing as little dialogue as possible, usually only names and locations. Recycled scripts were often credited to "W. Hermanos" (Spanish for W. Brothers).
One of Moore's episodes, "Bolt From the Blue," was written and directed by Robert Altman.
Moore quit due to what he felt was a declining script quality (without having to resort to legal measures as Garner had); Moore insisted that if he had gotten the level of writing Garner had enjoyed during the first two years of the show's run, he would have stayed.
As ratings continued to slide following the addition of Moore, strapping Garner lookalike Robert Colbert was cast as yet another brother, Brent Maverick, duplicating Garner's most frequent costume exactly. Colbert had appeared on the show previously as Cherokee Dan Evans in the season four episode "Hadley's Hunters," wearing an identical black hat on the back of his head just as Garner had. Aware of his physical similarity to Garner and wary of the comparisons that would inevitably result, Colbert famously pleaded with Warner not to cast him, saying, "Put me in a dress and call me Brenda but don't do this to me!"
The studio had intended for Kelly, Moore, and Colbert to be on the series at the same time, and numerous publicity photos survive of Bart, Beau, and Brent posing together, but Moore had already left the show when the first of Colbert's two episodes aired in March 1961. Colbert was introduced as Brent in the season four episode "The Forbidden City." Kelly made what amounted to an extended cameo appearance in the episode. Colbert would appear again two episodes later by himself in "Benefit of the Doubt," featuring Ellen Burstyn and Slim Pickens.
For the fifth season in 1961-1962, the studio dropped Colbert without notifying him; they simply did not call him back. New Kelly episodes alternated with Garner reruns until the series was cancelled. The studio reversed the actors' billing at the beginning of the show for that last season, with Kelly ahead of Garner.Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as James Aloysius "Dandy Jim" Buckley, a dapper and sophisticated con artist, who at times was both friend and foe to Bret but maintained a markedly warmer friendship with Bart.
Diane Brewster as Samantha Crawford, a charming and flirtatious con woman with a beguiling fake southern accent who managed to dupe Bret and Bart out of large sums in different episodes—but not without having a little romance with each brother first. Brewster originated the role of Crawford on Cheyenne before Maverick went on the air. "Samantha Crawford" was the maiden name of series creator Roy Huggins' mother.
Richard Long as John "Gentleman Jack" Darby. Gentleman Jack was intended to be the friendly rival opposing Bart that Dandy Jim's character was for Bret, and was created after Zimbalist had been cast in 77 Sunset Strip and was no longer available for lengthy appearances; Long later joined the cast of 77 Sunset Strip himself. All four (Bret, Bart, Dandy Jim, and Gentleman Jack) appear in the episode "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" but throughout the series, Gentleman Jack only had scenes with Bart among the principals.
Arlene Howell as Cindy Lou Brown, another beautiful con woman whom Bart and Gentleman Jack fought over. Cindy Lou appeared in three episodes, "Alias Bart Maverick," "Passage to Fort Doom," and very briefly in Shady Deal at Sunny Acres."
Leo Gordon as Big Mike McComb, Bret and Bart's Irish friend who aided them on several adventures. Gordon, also a screenwriter, would later script some episodes of the series but none of those in which he appeared.
Gerald Mohr and Peter Breck as Doc Holliday. Mohr originally played the role in season one as a vengeful but charismatic killer. However, in seasons four and five, Breck portrayed Holliday as more of a lovable rogue who was always getting Bart in trouble with his scams.
Kathleen Crowley as Modesty Blaine, Melanie Blake, and Marla, leading ladies with repeated appearances in various seasons. Mona Freeman played Modesty Blaine twice while Crowley played the role once. Crowley played leading ladies in eight different episodes, from the first season to the final episode, a series record.
John Dehner and Andrew Duggan each played gangster Big Ed Murphy once, among other roles in the series.
Mike Road played gambler Pearly Gates twice during the final season. In both his appearances, he was accompanied by Kathleen Crowley's character of Marla.
Some performers, such as Kathleen Crowley, Tol Avery, Gage Clarke, and Chubby Johnson, appeared seven or eight times over the course of the series in various roles. Joel Grey played Billy the Kid in an unusual episode that featured a bravura pistol-twirling exhibition by Garner. A chubby, acne-scarred Robert Redford joined Kelly as a supporting player on a desperate cattle drive in "The Iron Hand". Stacy Keach, Sr. played a sheriff in "Ghost Rider." Clint Eastwood, Slim Pickens, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried, Alan Hale, Jr., Jim Backus, George Kennedy, John Gavin, Mike Connors, Chad Everett, Patric Knowles, and Adam West appeared at least once during the run of the series. Actresses included subsequent Oscar-winners Ellen Burstyn and Louise Fletcher, as well as Mala Powers, Coleen Gray, Ruta Lee, Marie Windsor, Abby Dalton, Karen Steele, Dawn Wells, Connie Stevens, Merry Anders, Sherry Jackson, and Adele Mara.
The program's stentorian-voiced announcer ("Maverick! Starring Jack Kelly and Robert Colbert!") was character actor Ed Reimers.
For a complete list of every episode in the series with comments, see the list of Maverick episodes.
The first episode of Maverick, "War of the Silver Kings", was based on C. B. Glasscock's "The War of the Copper Kings", which relates the real-life adventures of copper mine speculator F. Augustus Heinze who ultimately became a speculator in the New York financial district at 42 Broadway. Huggins recalls in his Archive of American Television interview that this Warners-owned property was selected by the studio to replace "Point Blank" as the first episode in order to cheat him out of creator residuals.
"Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" features Bret spending most of the episode relaxing in a rocking chair, calmly whittling and offhandedly assuring the inquisitive and derisively amused townspeople that he's "working on it", while Bart runs a complex sting operation to swindle a crooked banker who had stolen Bret's deposit of $15,000. Garner notes in his memoir, The Garner Files, that he was given the choice of which role to play, and he chose the one where he spent the episode sitting down because he'd been feeling tired and overworked. It was his favorite episode. In his Archive of American Television interview, Roy Huggins contends that the first half of The Sting was an uncredited restaging of "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres".
Other notable episodes include "According to Hoyle," which was the first appearance of Diane Brewster as roguish Samantha Crawford, a role she'd played earlier in an episode of the western TV series Cheyenne; "The Saga of Waco Williams" with Wayde Preston and Louise Fletcher, which drew the largest viewership of the series; "Gun-Shy", a spoof of Gunsmoke; and "Duel at Sundown" with Clint Eastwood as a fist-fighting and gun-slinging villain.
Jack Kelly's favorite episode was "Two Beggars On Horseback", a sweeping adventure that depicted a frenzied race between Bret and Bart to cash a check, the only time in the series that Kelly also wore a black hat, albeit briefly.
"Pappy" features Garner playing Bret and Bart's "pappy", Beau Maverick, a previously unseen character. Bret and Bart would frequently announce, "As my Pappy used to say..." followed by aphorisms like, "Work is fine for killing time but it's a shaky way to make a living." Bret disguises himself as Pappy in the same episode. The split screen sequences with two Garners in the same shot were singled out by critics as especially interesting. Kelly also plays a dual role, briefly portraying Beau's brother Bentley ("Uncle Bent", as Bret calls him). Garner's Beau Maverick is not the same character as the Beau Maverick played by Roger Moore later in the series; Moore's Beau is the nephew of Garner's Beau and Bret and Bart's cousin. The younger Beau Maverick always referred to the elder as "Uncle Beau" instead of "Pappy". Troy Donahue plays the son of a long-time lover of Pappy in the episode.
During the first two seasons, with Huggins at the helm, writers were instructed to write every script while visualizing Garner playing the part; two-Maverick scripts denoted the brothers as "Maverick 1" and "Maverick 2," with Garner choosing which role he would play due to his senior status on the series. The one exception to this was "Passage to Fort Doom," a meditation on courage written expressly for Kelly, directed by Paul Henreid, and featuring Arlene Howell, John Alderson and Diane McBain.
The episode "Escape to Tampico" used the old set of "Rick's Cafe American" from Casablanca for "La Cantina Americana", and contains many allusions to the film. At 19:19 on the DVD release there is even a short clip from the movie where actors are dressed in French Army and Wehrmacht uniforms, and the actor Leonid Kinskey (Sasha) is recognizable tending the bar.
The second episode of season four, "Hadley's Hunters", features extremely brief crossovers from the Warner Bros. array of Western shows. Bart encounters Dan Troop (John Russell) and Johnny McKay (Peter Brown) from Lawman, watches from a distance as Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker) from Cheyenne gallops by on his horse, speaks with Tom Brewster (Will Hutchins) from Sugarfoot, and interrupts Bronco Layne (Ty Hardin) from Bronco. Edd Byrnes from 77 Sunset Strip also appears while combing a horse's mane at a stable named "77 Cherokee Strip." The empty office of Christopher Colt from Colt .45 is shown, but the character does not appear. Colt's gun hung up on the wall and his dust-covered satchel is an inside joke referencing that show's recent cancellation. James Garner lookalike Robert Colbert plays a major role with a black hat like Bret's perched on the back of his head just as Garner usually wore his, a foreshadowing of Colbert playing another Maverick brother dressed precisely like Bret but named "Brent" for two episodes later in the same season.
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s character Dandy Jim Buckley appears in "Stampede" and "The Jail at Junction Flats". Zimbalist went on to play the lead in his own series, 77 Sunset Strip, after five appearances as Buckley. Huggins recruited Richard Long to fill the void as a similar character named "Gentleman Jack Darby", and both Buckley and Darby appear in "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres", although not in the same scenes.
Many episodes are humorous while others are deadly serious, and in addition to purely original scripts, producer Roy Huggins drew upon works by writers as disparate as Louis Lamour and Robert Louis Stevenson to give the series breadth and scope. The Maverick brothers never stopped traveling, and the show was as likely to be set on a riverboat or in New Orleans as in a western desert or frontier saloon. Huggins quit the series at the end of the second season due to a life-threatening bout with pneumonia, and was succeeded by writer/producer Coles Trapnell, ushering in a gradual but sharp permanent decline in ratings. The series had finished at #6 in the Nielsen ratings in the 1958-1959 season, then fell to #19 in 1959-1960 and out of the top 30 during its last two seasons.
Writers for Maverick included Roy Huggins ("Shady Deal at Sunny Acres"), Russell S. Hughes ("According to Hoyle", "The Seventh Hand", "The Burning Sky", and Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Wrecker"), Gerald Drayson Adams ("Stampede"), Montgomery Pittman ("The Saga of Waco Williams"), Douglas Heyes ("The Quick and the Dead"), Marion Hargrove ("The Jail at Junction Flats", "Gun Shy" and others), Howard Browne ("Duel at Sundown"), Leo Townsend ("The Misfortune Teller"), Gene Levitt ("The Comstock Conspiracy"), Leo Gordon (who also acted on the series although never in an episode that he had written), and George Waggner, among many others.
The memorable theme song was penned by prolific composers David Buttolph (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics). Buttolph's theme first appeared as incidental music in the Warner Bros. film of The Lone Ranger. The theme song was only heard briefly at the show's opening (after a teaser clip), and in an instrumental version. For the closing credits, a full-length (30 second) version was used. The prolific Buttolph's other most remembered musical contribution was the arrangement of Alfred Newman's stirring theme from 1940's The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power.
The closing theme song was entirely instrumental during season one. A vocal version with lyrics debuted partway through season two, being used intermittently in place of the instrumental version. The vocal theme finally saw regular use by the end of season two and for all seasons thereafter. The vocal theme, performed by an all-male chorus, described the lead character of Maverick ("Who is the tall dark stranger there? / Maverick is the name...") – even though it debuted well after the two-Maverick format was firmly established.
In the decades following the cancellation of Maverick, the characters and situations have been revived several times.
In 1978, a TV movie called The New Maverick had 50-year-old James Garner and Jack Kelly reprising their roles, with Charles Frank playing young Ben Maverick, the son of their cousin Beau. Garner shot the film while on hiatus from The Rockford Files. Kelly only appeared in a few scenes near the end, a frequent practice during Garner episodes in the original series.
The New Maverick was the pilot for a new series, Young Maverick, which ran for a short time in 1979. Frank's character, Ben Maverick, was the focal point of the show, while Garner only appeared as Bret for a few moments at the beginning of the first episode. It is apparent that Bret does not much care for Ben, and the two part at the nearest crossroads; some critics later noted that the audience couldn't help but think that the camera was following the wrong Maverick. The series ended so quickly that several episodes that had already been filmed were never broadcast.
Two years later, Garner left The Rockford Files and was required by contractual obligations to perform in another series. Bret Maverick (1981–82) starred the 53-year-old as an older-but-no-wiser Bret. Jack Kelly appeared as Bret's brother Bart in only one episode but was slated to return as a series regular for the following season. NBC unexpectedly canceled the show despite respectable ratings, and Kelly would never officially join the cast. The new series involved Bret Maverick settling down in a small town in Arizona after winning a saloon in a poker game. The two-hour pilot episode was reedited as the TV-movie Bret Maverick: The Lazy Ace and the series' only two-part episode was later marketed as a TV-movie entitled Bret Maverick: Faith, Hope and Clarity. Bret Maverick ended on a sentimental note, with Bret and Bart embracing during an unexpected encounter, and the theme from the original series playing in the background.
The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) featured Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick for the last time. The film united Kelly with various other Western characters and actors, including Bat Masterson (Gene Barry), Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brian), the Rifleman (Chuck Connors) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), Caine from Kung Fu (David Carradine), The Westerner (Brian Keith), a thinly disguised Virginian (James Drury) and Trampas (Doug McClure, who had appeared briefly as a hotel clerk in a first season Maverick episode), and Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker). As each hero appears onscreen, a few bars of the theme song from his original series plays in the background.
Garner made an appearance as Bret Maverick in a 1959 Bob Hope movie called Alias Jesse James, also featuring Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp, Fess Parker (dressed as Davy Crockett), Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Jay Silverheels (Tonto from The Lone Ranger), Gail Davis (Annie Oakley), James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke), and Ward Bond (Seth Adams of Wagon Train). Garner's appearance in the film is edited out of television presentations due to a copyright conflict regarding the character.
A lavish film version was released in 1994 entitled Maverick starring Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick, Jodie Foster as a faux-Southern accented gambler reminiscent of Samantha Crawford, and James Garner as Marshal Zane Cooper, who is later revealed to be Bret's father. The movie was directed by Richard Donner (who had previously directed many TV series prior to working in feature films) from a screenplay by Oscar-winning writer William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Garner maintained in later interviews that he was playing exactly the same character as in the television series, with Gibson as his son (which is consistent with the script's and Gibson's notably different interpretation of the character), but the screenplay itself leaves this open to conjecture; some assume that he was actually portraying Bret's father Beau "Pappy" Maverick. A "Making of" mini-documentary was broadcast on cable stations prior to the film's release that included no footage of Garner from the original series despite both the movie and television series having been produced by the same studio.
During the height of the TV show's popularity, the Maverick brothers starred in a comic book drawn by Dan Spiegle. Spiegle met Garner at the studio before the first Maverick comic was drawn because no publicity photographs were available yet. Spiegle talked in an interview about comic books he had drawn:
I would say my favorite was Maverick, which ran about three years— fairly successful, considering the run of other western strips published then. I was assigned this strip even before they had stills available for the show, so I was sent down to Warner Bros. to see it in production, where I met James Garner, which is perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so much. Having met the star, I was extra careful to make the drawings I did look as parallel to the real person as possible. I put my all into that strip, having fun all the way.
The eventual result was that many of Spiegle's panel drawings of Garner were eerily exact, while his later ones of Jack Kelly as Bart, Roger Moore as Beau, and Robert Colbert as Brent, bore practically no resemblance to the actual actors.
Warner Home Video released all five seasons on DVD in Region 1.
Seasons One and Two were standard DVD releases. Seasons Three, Four, and Five were released via their Warner Archive Collection. This is a Manufacture-on-Demand (MOD) release on DVD-R discs and is available through Warner's online store and Amazon.com.
On 21 April 2006, a 10-foot-tall (3.0 m) bronze statue of James Garner as Bret Maverick was unveiled in Garner's hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, with Garner present.