By Todd Leopold
(CNN) — James Garner, the understated, wisecracking everyman actor who enjoyed multi-generational success on both the small and big screen, has died. He was 86.
Police, who were called to his residence Saturday night in Los Angeles, say he died of natural causes.
Garner starred in hit TV series almost 20 years apart — “Maverick” in the late 1950s and “The Rockford Files” in the 1970s. He also had a notable film career, starring in such classics as “Sayonara” (1957), “The Great Escape” (1963), “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), “Grand Prix” (1966) and “Victor/Victoria” (1982), as well as the TV movies “My Name Is Bill W.” (1989) and “Barbarians at the Gate” (1993). More recent films included “Space Cowboys” (2000) and “The Notebook” (2004).
He was fiercely independent, challenging the studios on both “Maverick” and “Rockford” when he felt he wasn’t being treated fairly. He sued studios twice and won both times.
“The industry is like it always has been. It’s a bunch of greedy people,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.
A versatile star
He was a valued and convincing pitchman — in his 1970s and ’80s commercials for Polaroid cameras he had such good rapport with co-star Mariette Hartley that viewers were convinced they were married — and was nominated for a slew of awards, including Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG Awards and an Oscar (for 1986’s “Murphy’s Romance”). His performance in “The Rockford Files” won him an Emmy.
He could do serious. His performance in the TV movie “My Name Is Bill W.” — about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous — was straightforward and uncompromising. He could also show real heartbreak, whether it was cradling fellow escapee Donald Pleasance in “The Great Escape” or talking with Gena Rowlands in “The Notebook.”
But he was rarely one to blow his own horn.
“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”
James Scott Bumgarner was born April 7, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother died when he was 5 and his father remarried a year later. Garner didn’t get along with his stepmother and, after a particularly vicious argument, left home at 14. His father, who divorced his stepmother, eventually moved to Los Angeles. At 16, Garner followed, attending Hollywood High School and finding a job as a swimsuit model.
“I made 25 bucks an hour!” he told “People Magazine”. “That’s why I quit school. I was making more money than the teachers. I never finished the ninth grade.
After joining the Merchant Marine and the National Guard, he served in the Korean War, where he won a Purple Heart. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles and took up acting — for the same reason he started modeling, he told the L.A. Times.
“What was I qualified to do to make a living? Nothing,” he said. “You don’t need qualifications as an actor or a politician. And I didn’t want to be a politician.”
A small part in Broadway’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” led to a contract with Warner Bros., which cast him in both TV and movie roles. After a performance as a Marine captain in “Sayonara,” he took the lead role in a new TV series, “Maverick,” which was to make his reputation in many ways.
Leaving his mark
In 1957, “Maverick” was, well, a maverick: a Western filled with comedy, which often parodied other TV Westerns. As a show on ABC — then the third-ranked of the three broadcast networks — it wasn’t expected to do well against competitors “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Steve Allen Show,” but won its Sunday-night time slot and became one of the hottest programs on television. In turn, Garner — who played Bret Maverick, a roving card player — became one of the medium’s biggest stars.
But Garner became dissatisfied with the show’s grind and being treated like “ham in a smokehouse,” as he put it. In 1960 he sued producer Warner Bros. for breach of contract. He won the case and left the show, which replaced him first with Roger Moore (as Beau Maverick) and then Robert Colbert (as Brent) but soon left the air entirely.
Garner, however, was on the verge of movie stardom. Director William Wyler cast him in the film version of Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” as a sympathetic doctor; two years later Garner starred as Lt. Bob “The Scrounger” Hendley in “The Great Escape,” one of the great war movies.
He remembered star Steve McQueen as being rebellious. “Steven would drive that motorcycle with the swastikas on it all over Munich. People would yell. They didn’t think that was too good, and I didn’t either,” Garner told “People” in 1998.
But the two were close, he added — in fact, McQueen was his next-door neighbor in Los Angeles. “He looked at me as an older brother,” he told the magazine.
Garner followed “Escape” with the film he ranked as his favorite, “The Americanization of Emily.” The film, which had a script by Paddy Cheyefsky (“Marty,” “Network”), was about a self-described “coward” Navy officer who romances an Englishwoman (Julie Andrews) and — against his will — takes part in the D-Day invasion. “Emily” was nominated for two Oscars and helped make Andrews — a famed stage actress whose film “Mary Poppins” was released earlier that year — a star.
His 1966 film, the John Frankenheimer-directed “Grand Prix,” gave him another passion — auto racing. He founded an auto-racing team and drove the pace car in the Indianapolis 500 three times. It was an avocation he shared with a friend, Paul Newman. Garner was also a good golfer and an avowed fan of his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, where he endowed a chair at the college’s drama school.
Garner’s movie career languished in the late ’60s, though he had a mild hit with “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969), and he returned to television in the 1970s. After the short-lived “Nichols” he took the role as Jim Rockford in “The Rockford Files,” which was as much an anti-detective series as “Maverick” was an anti-Western. (Both shows were produced by Roy Huggins, who also created “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Fugitive.”)
Garner’s Jim Rockford may have carried a gun, but he did so rarely (he didn’t have a permit anyway) and he would much rather talk than shoot. Once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, the Pontiac Firebird-driving detective lived in a dilapidated trailer on the Malibu coast. His friends included a grumpy LAPD detective, a former cellmate, a disbarred lawyer and his father, a retired trucker.
Aging amid stardom
Garner did many of his own stunts on “Rockford,” and they took a toll, as he said to “People” in 1994.
“The work on the show had worn me down to a nub,” he said. Over the course of the series, he broke bones, strained muscles and was even treated for depression. “I was sick and tired of it all.” Garner also had quintuple-bypass surgery in 1988 and had a stroke in 2008.
He left “Rockford” in 1980, partly because of his ailments, partly because of contractual problems with the studio, which eventually led to his lawsuit. After it was settled, he returned to the role for a series of TV movies in the ’90s.
But “Rockford” cemented Garner’s status on Hollywood’s A-list. He made a number of TV and theatrical movies in the ’80s, some duds — “Tank” (1984) and “Sunset” (1988) — and some successful: He earned praise for his performance in “Victor/Victoria” and an Oscar nomination for “Murphy’s Romance.”
He worked steadily in the 2000s, with notable performances in TV’s “Barbarians at the Gate,” the film version of “Maverick,” the miniseries “Streets of Laredo” and the theatrical film “The Notebook.” He also returned to series television, joining the cast of “8 Simple Rules” after the death of John Ritter.
The work in front of a live audience intimidated him, he said, despite his experience.
“I started in theater, and that’s what scared me to death,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2004.
Actor, husband, activist
Garner famously had one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting marriages. He married Lois Clarke in 1956 after a brief courtship; they were still married at Garner’s death, 58 years later.
“I just let my wife get away with murder,” he joked to “The Los Angeles Times” in 1994.
His co-stars were equally smitten with Garner.
“Jim is funny and dear, and he laughs at my jokes,” Sally Field told “People” in 1985, before the release of “Murphy’s Romance.” “That’s what makes Jim sexy; it doesn’t change with years.”
Garner was also a longtime political activist. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and frequently donated to Democratic candidates and liberal causes.
But he’ll likely be best remembered for a James Garner persona that seemed inseparable from the real-life man: professional, unruffled, witty and never too impressed with himself.
“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor,” he told “People” in 2005. “His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”
He is survived by his wife and their two daughters, Kim and Gigi.