James Garner is one of those rare Hollywood actors who has made such an incredible impression on the silver screen with an illustrious career spanning decades, that he is easily recognized to this day by multiples of generations and by millions across the world. You can count me in as one of his biggest fans. In addition to an active filmography of over fifty films beginning in the mid-1950’s, Garner was equally popular in a very active career in television. He is one of the first to skillfully master both the big and small screen mediums so successfully. One of my favorite television roles for Garner is the charming western comedy, “Maverick”(1957-1960).
Born in Norman, Oklahoma as James Scott Bumgarner, in 1928, his childhood had a hefty share of challenges. As the youngest of three boys, James lost his mother Mildred (who was said to be part Cherokee) at the very early age of five years old. The boys lived with family until their father remarried. This stepmother was physically abusive for years to the point that young 14 year old James finally stood up to this deplorable woman with a violent altercation that ended the marriage. His father left the boys behind and moved to LA. By sixteen, James joined the Merchant Marines. He enjoyed the physical activity and camaraderie but rejoined his father in LA to enroll as a popular student at Hollywood High. This reunion did not last long as he returned to Norman less than a year later. There he excelled in sports, not academics at the local school but never graduated (he did earn his GED later). Instead, he returned to the army where he felt more at home.
In the National Guard he served 7 months stateside then he served in combat in the midst of the Korean War for another 14 months in the standard army. He even earned 2 different Purple Heart medals for his injuries during the war. Thereafter, a friend convinced him to take on a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” (1954) where he carefully studied the acting methods of co-star Henry Fonda. This led to a series of small television spots and a contract with Warner Brothers (in 1956), which followed with some film work. Without any notification or permission, Warner Brothers took the liberty of changing his name from Bumgarner to Garner.
His big Hollywood break came along when he was offered the part of Bret Maverick on the television series, “Maverick” in 1957. Created by Roy Huggins, this television series took the popular and frequent TV genre at that time of the western, yet gave it a whole new twist. Instead of taking a straight-forward good guy (typically a law man of some sort) who takes an unswerving interest to run the bad guys out of town, “Maverick” took a fresh approach that was instantly popular thanks to the charm of its leading man, James Garner. The role of Bret Maverick was a lovable cad… a gambler traveling town to town in search of profit via a deck of cards. And while he was often the source of the bad guys’ undoing, it was never his primary objective. Maverick is actually a rather lazy character, never seeking out conflict. He’d rather sneak out of town to seek his next fortune than have a ‘shoot out at the OK Corral.’ But ultimately he always revealed that he’s a good guy after all; even if grudgingly, in the end.
James Garner, on his role as ‘Bret Maverick’: “I’m playing me. Bret Maverick is lazy: I’m lazy. And I like being lazy.”
The show also featured Bret’s brother Bart (portrayed by Jack Kelly, 1957-1962) and later a British-accented cousin, Beau (portrayed by Roger Moore, 1959-1961). While Bret and Bart were supposed to be a brother team on equal star billing, audiences were so taken by Garner’s handsome looks, charisma and dry-wit charm that Bret quickly became the clear favorite. As popular as James Garner was in this role, his contract with Warner Brothers ended abruptly in 1960. Warner Brothers suspended Garner without pay in the midst of a writer’s strike. But he sued and won; thereby freeing him to pursue higher-paying film roles, just as he was rapidly becoming a household name.
While his part on the “Maverick” series ended in 1960, this was not his last nor only time to play this character. He also portrayed Bret Maverick in 1957 in one episode of “Sugarfoot” (1957-1961), in 1979 in one episode of “Young Maverick” (1979-1980), and again in 18 episodes of “Bret Maverick” (1981-1982). When the Bret Maverick role was reprised as a major film in 1994 starring Mel Gibson as the lead, it was James Garner who co-starred as ‘partner’ Marshal Zane Cooper with equal charm and appeal.
Over the following five decades, James Garner went on to star in memorable film and television roles such as THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964), MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985) (for which he was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe), THE NOTEBOOK (2004) and TV series “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980). Some of my favorite Garner films are his fun comedies from the 60’s like THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963), MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963), HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968) and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969). While James Garner has been an active and very hard-working (despite his joke quoted above regarding laziness) actor for decades, he is most widely recognized for the early role that launched his career into super stardom, “Maverick.”
On a personal note, I must add that I highly respect this man not only for his acting talents but also for his integrity as an individual. He has been a long-time supporter of civil rights and humanitarian causes, and active in politics. On August 28, 1963 he joined over 200,000 Americans for the infamous ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ to get an up-close view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspire the crowds with his “I Have A Dream” speech. He was joined by fellow civil rights supporters like Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. In one of the longest real-life romances in Hollywood, he met his wife Lois Clarke at an Adlai Stephenson campaign rally in 1956 and they married just 2 weeks later. I truly enjoy following their daughter Gigi on twitter (@MavrocksGirl) and I recommend following her engaging and compassionate (gee, I wonder where she gets those lovely qualities) timeline, especially for you James Garner fans like me!
This tribute to James Garner’s role as “Maverick” is my humble entry to the delightful blogathon, BIG STARS ON THE SMALL SCREEN as hosted by the fabulous How Sweet It Was site. Please read all the other entertaining and informative blogger entries in this wonderful gem of a blogathon!