A Korean War vet and Purple Heart recipient from Norman, Okla., James Garner knew how to sell a joke way too well for a fellow so handsome.
Garner, one of the most celebrated, acclaimed and beloved actors on the planet, passed away last night in Los Angeles.
He enjoyed an enviable film career that incorporated standout turns opposite Marlon Brando and Ricardo Montalban in “Sayonara” (1957), opposite Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” (1963), opposite Julie Andrews in “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), opposite Toshiro Mifune and Yves Montand in “Grand Prix” (1966), and opposite Bruce Lee and Carroll O'Connor in "Marlowe" (1969). In his later years he garnered an Oscar nomination for “Murphy’s Romance” (1985) and played a key role in 2004’s “The Notebook” (which some non-AICN readers regard as the greatest movie ever made).
Garner also starred in two TV series I and many others regard as among the best of all time: ABC’s unconventional 1950s western “Maverick” and NBC’s unconventional 1970s detective drama “The Rockford Files,” both huge hits and both birthed by writer-producer Roy Huggins (who, in between, created another huge hit titled “The Fugitive”).
Launched in 1957, “Maverick” – a western infused with loads of sly wit – was for its first eight episodes centered solely on Garner’s funny, quick-thinking, highly ethical Texas-reared poker-wizard Bret Maverick. A self-described coward, Maverick loved money, abhorred violence and proved a horrible gunfighter. (He was better with his fists, though, and could beat Clint Eastwood into unconsciousness when it suited him.)
In an era swimming with TV westerns, “Maverick” proved an unusually popular one, often beating even powerful timeslot competitors “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Steve Allen Show.”
In an era when a series would air new episodes every week, it quickly became apparent that “Maverick” episodes were taking more than a week to shoot. Producers’ solution was to excuse Garner from about half the subsequent episodes by introducing Jack Kelly as Bret’s poker-wiz brother Bart. The name “Bret” was replaced by the name “Bart” on half the scripts and the series went forward by utilizing two crews simultaneously.
In my view, casting Kelly in essentially the same role underscored how important Garner was to the franchise. Robbed of Garner’s charisma and expert ability to facilitate the series’ comedy, the Bart episodes too frequently struck me as substandard, even though they frequently employed the same writers as the Bret installments.
Audiences may have shared my dissatisfaction. Garner exited the series after season three and was replaced in half the season-four episodes by future James Bond Roger Moore (as newly returned-from-England cousin Beau Maverick). Ratings plummeted and the series was cancelled following an abbreviated all-Bart fifth season.
As satisfying post-"Maverick" movie roles began to wane, Garner tried to recapture the “Maverick” magic in 1971 by teaming with screenwriter Frank Pierson (“Cat Ballou,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Dog Day Afternoon”) for NBC’s “Nichols,” which cast Garner as a reluctant, pacifist sheriff in 1914 Arizona. Future “Rockford” sidekick Stuart Margolin played his deputy. Future Lois Lane Margot Kidder played Garner’s barmaid love interest. Gene L. Coon, fresh from shepherding “Star Trek,” wrote for the show.
Though Garner frequently cited Nichols as one of his favorite roles and was keen to pursue a second season, ratings were poor and NBC cancelled it after a single season.
NBC and Garner tried again in 1974 with the magnificent “The Rockford Files,” a contemporary drama described by its producers as “Maverick as a private detective.”
To create “Rockford,” “Maverick” mastermind Huggins hired overachieving “Adam 12”/“Columbo” writer Steven J. Cannell, who would go on to create a shocking number of follow-up series, among them “Wiseguy,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “Baretta,” “The A-Team” “21 Jump Street,” “The Commish” and “Tenspeed and Brownshoe.”
Rockford, like Maverick, was a funny pragmatist. He also lived and worked in a dilapidated motor home, kept his gun in cookie jar, had trouble winning fair fistfights and proved a genre game-changer in the era of “Mannix,” “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones.”
Like “Maverick,” “Rockford” was both a hit and a critical darling. It was nominated thrice for the best-drama Emmy, and won that Emmy in 1978. While Garner was nominated for a best-actor Emmy in 1957 it was “Rockford” that finally handed Garner the statuette exactly 20 years later. He was Emmy-nominated for his work as Jim Rockford five years in a row.
Though both projects featured superb supporting casts, writing, and other work behind the camera, “Maverick” and “Rockford Files” would never have worked without James Garner.
In 2010 NBC tried, in an act of sheer stupidity, to revive “The Rockford Files” by casting Dermot Mulrooney in the Garner role. The project died at the pilot stage -- and demonstrated one more time that James Garner was irreplaceable.