Affable actor cut out to play the flawed or unlikely hero

James Garner: April 7th, 1928 - July 19th, 2014

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

James Garner, who has died aged 86, was a wry and handsome leading man who moved seamlessly between television and movies but was best known for his role as an amiable gambler in the 1950s western Maverick and the cranky detective Jim Rockford in the 1970s series The Rockford Files.

As an actor Garner was something of a paradox: a lantern-jawed, brawny athlete whose physical appeal was enhanced and undercut by a disarming wit. He appeared in more than 50 films, many of them dramas, but as he established in one of his notable early performances, as a battle-shy naval officer in The Americanization of Emily (1964) – and had shown before that in Maverick – he was most at home playing a flawed or unlikely hero.

The Rockford character, a semi-tough ex-con (he had served five years on a false accusation of armed robbery) who lived in a beat-up trailer in a Malibu beach parking lot and could handle himself in a fight (though he probably took more punches than he gave), spent much of his time being exasperated by his various personal problems or his dicey relationship with the police.

Maverick had been in part a send-up of the conventional western drama, and The Rockford Files similarly made fun of the standard television detective.

In his 2011 autobiography, Garner confessed to having a live-and-let-live attitude with the caveat that when he was pushed, he shoved back. What distinguished his performance as Rockford was how well that more-put-upon-than-macho persona came across.

Natural easy manner Rockford’s reactions – startled, nonplused and annoyed being his specialities – appeared native to him. His naturalness led some critics to liken him to Gary Cooper and James Stewart. And like those two actors, he too usually got the girl.

Garner came to acting late, after a series of short-lived jobs. He was hired in a non-speaking part in a touring production which starred Henry Fonda, whose technique he studied closely. “I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” he once said.

James Scott Bumgarner was born in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 7th, 1928. His paternal grandfather had participated in the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 and was later shot to death by the son of a widow with whom he’d been having an affair. His maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee.

His first Hollywood break came when he met Richard L Bare, a director of the television western Cheyenne, who cast him in a small part. That and other bit roles led to a contract with Warner Bros. His first lead role was in Darby’s Rangers (1958) as the second World War hero William Darby. At about the same time he was cast as the womanising gambler Bret Maverick, the role that made him a star. Alone among westerns of the 1950s, Maverick, which made its debut in 1957, was about an anti-hero. He didn’t much care for horses or guns, and he was motivated by something much less grand than law and order: money. “If you look at Maverick and Rockford,” Garner later wrote, “they’re pretty much the same guy. One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”

After leaving Maverick in 1960, Garner appeared in a number of romantic comedies, starring opposite Doris Day and Lee Remick. There was also a comic western, Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), and a follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).

He also reprised his Rockford character in several television movies and appeared in the movie version of Maverick (1994) as Marshal Zane Cooper, a foil to the title character, played by Mel Gibson. Of

Lifelong Democrat Garner disdained the pretentiousness of the acting profession. “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories about acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t.

A lifelong Democrat who was active in behalf of civil rights and environmental causes, he is survived by his wife, Lois Clarke, their daughter, Greta, known as Gigi and Lois Garner’s daughter from a previous marriage, Kimberly.