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.
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).
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