Many years ago when television and I were much younger and television was testing its legs to see what genres were best-suited to the still-new medium, the Warner Brothers studio had a sort of repertory of westerns that played on ABC. Each was headed by a tall, good-looking, second- or third-tier contract player. Of these westerns the star of the most popular was a tall, impossibly handsome, easy-going Oklahoman. Now James Garner has died at the age of 86:
James Garner, a master of light comedy who shot to fame in the 1950s as the charming and dry-witted gambler on the hit TV western “Maverick” and later won an Emmy Award as the unconventional L.A. private eye on “The Rockford Files,” has died. He was 86.
Garner was found dead Saturday at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles police officer Alonzo Iniquez told the Associated Press. Garner underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1988 and suffered a stroke in 2008, but the cause of death was not immediately known.
Once described by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales as having “embodied the crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American masculinity” in his iconic roles as Maverick and Rockford, the Oklahoma-born Garner amassed more than 80 movie and TV-movie credits during his more than 50-year career.
After his stint on television’s Maverick, Garner went on to become a major motion picture star, appearing in a string of hit movies in the 1960s including The Children’s Hour, Boys’ Night Out, The Great Escape, and The Americanization of Emily. Many of the obituaries point to his talent for light comedy but it was as a dramatic actor that Garner had cut his teeth on stage and he excelled at it.
His motion picture career peaked with a pair of western spoofs, Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.
He returned to television to star in a modern day remake of Maverick, The Rockford Files.
His last role as a romantic lead was in 1985′s Murphy’s Romance. In it he played an elderly pharmacist courting Sally Fields’s spunky 40 year old ingenue. He received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in it. Murphy’s Romance remains one of my favorite pictures, one of the handful I could watch over and over again.
Garner never fit comfortably into the studio system. His relationships with the studios for which he worked were fractious. His parting with Warner Brothers was bitter; he sued Universal twice.
I think that the secret of James Garner’s success on both the big and small screens was that he always played himself and James Garner was always interesting and charming enough for us to want to watch.