The son of an Oklahoma carpet layer, James Garner did stints in the Army and merchant marines before working as a male model. His professional acting career commenced with a non-speaking part in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954), in which he was also assigned to run lines with stars Lloyd Nolan, Henry Fonda, and John Hodiak.


Given that talent roster and the fact that the director was Charles Laughton, Garner managed to earn his salary and receive a crash course in acting all at once. After a few TV commercials, he was signed as a contract player by Warner Bros. studios in 1956. He barely had a part in his first film, The Girl He Left Behind (1956), though he was given special attention by director David Butler, who felt Garner had far more potential than the film's nominal star, Tab Hunter.

Due in part to Butler's enthusiasm, Garner was cast in the Warner Bros. TV western Maverick. The series was originally supposed to have alternate stars: Gambler Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly) would carry the ball one week, while his brother Brett (Garner) would handle things the next week. After a few months, it was clear to Warners that the public regarded Garner as the only true star of the series (something that Kelly would fully and respectfully acknowledge in later years). The scriptwriters latched on to his gift for understated humor, and before long Maverick had as many laughs as shoot-outs. Garner was promoted to starring film roles during his Maverick run, but by the third season, he chafed at his low salary and insisted on better treatment. Warners refused, so he walked. Lawsuits and recriminations were exchanged, but the end result was that Garner was a free agent as of 1960. He did quite well as a free-lance actor for several years, turning in commendable work in such films as Boys' Night Out (1962) and The Great Escape (1963), but soon was perceived by filmmakers as something of a less expensive Rock Hudson, never more so than when he played Hudsonish parts opposite Doris Day in Move Over, Darling (1963) and The Thrill of It All! (1963).

Garner fared rather better in variations of his "Maverick" persona in such westerns as Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and The Skin Game (1971), but he eventually tired of eating warmed-over stew; besides, being a cowboy star had made him a walking mass of injuries and broken bones. He tried to play a more peaceable Westerner in the TV series Nichols (1971), but when audiences failed to respond, his character was killed off and replaced by his more athletic twin brother (also Garner). The actor finally shed the Maverick cloak with his long-running TV series The Rockford Files (1974-78), wherein he played a John McDonaldesque private eye who never seemed to meet anyone capable of telling the truth. Rockford resulted in even more injuries for the increasingly battered actor, and soon he was showing up on TV talk shows telling the world about the many physical activities he couldn't do anymore. Rockford ended in a spirit of recrimination, when Garner, expecting a percentage of profits, learned that "creative bookkeeping" had resulted in the series posting no profits.

To the public, Garner was the rough-hewn but basically affable fellow they'd seen in his fictional roles and as Mariette Hartley's partner (not husband) in a series of Polaroid commercials. However, his later film and TV-movie roles had a dark edge to them, notably his likable but mercurial pharmacist in Murphy's Romance (1985), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and his multifaceted co-starring stints with James Woods in the TV movies Promise (1986) and My Name is Bill (1989). In 1994, Garner came full circle in the profitable feature film Maverick (1994), wherein the title role was played by Mel Gibson.

Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide