Beloved actor James Garner enjoyed a film and television career spanning more than 50 years. He is perhaps best known for his roles in the popular TV series Maverick and The Rockford Files.
Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 7, 1928, he lost his mother at just 4 years old. Following her death — and for a time, after the store that his father owned burned down — he lived with extended family. When his father remarried, the family reunited, but in a memoir published years later, Garner said he was mistreated by his stepmother. Following one adversarial incident, he left home while still in his teens.
In 1950 he was drafted to serve in the Korean War, during which he was wounded in action twice and earned two Purple Hearts. He did not pursue acting until years later, after holding a series of jobs — installing telephones, washing dishes, lifeguarding, clerking at a grocery store and more. While working as a gas station attendant in Los Angeles, he befriended a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent. Later, at age 25, while working as a carpet layer, Garner was driving on L.A.'s La Cienega Boulevard when he saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. On an impulse, he went inside the office, rekindled his acquaintance and acquired his first agent.
Gregory, who was also a theatrical producer, gave the neophyte performer a nonspeaking part in a touring production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which starred Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan. The show eventually went to Broadway, opening on January 1954 and running for 415 performances. Working with Fonda had a major influence on Garner, who admired and sought to emulate the older man's naturalistic, unadorned acting style.
When the show ended, he scored a few small television parts, which led to a contract with Warner Bros., which cast him in several movies, including Sayonara, starring Marlon Brando, and the wartime drama Darby's Rangers — his first lead. The film coincided with his first TV lead, as charismatic card sharp Bret Maverick in the comedic western Maverick, which debuted in 1957.
He left the series, which co-starred Jack Kelly as Bret Maverick's brother, Bart, in 1960 after winning a breach-of-contract suit against Warner Bros. over the studio's refusal to pay him during a writers’ strike. It ran for two years more with Roger Moore as a cousin, Beau Maverick.
Over the next decade, Garner devoted himself to feature films, compiling a long list of credits that included The Children’s Hour, The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Move Over, Darling, Grand Prix, Duel at Diablo, How Sweet It Is!, Support Your Local Sheriff!, Support Your Local Gunfighter and Skin Game.
He returned to TV in 1971 with Nichols, a short-lived western drama set in the early 20th century. Three years later came his most enduring role as world-weary L.A. private eye Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. The show, which aired from 1974 to 1980, brought Garner five Emmy nominations and one win, in 1977. He received his first nomination in 1959, for his performance in Maverick.
Garner continued to work in both film and television through the mid-2000s. Notable movies during that time included Victor/Victoria, Murphy's Romance (for which he earned his only Oscar nomination), Sunset, Twilight, Maverick, Space Cowboys, My Fellow Americans and The Notebook.
His numerous television appearances included several series— among them Bret Maverick, Man of the People, Chicago Hope, God, the Devil and Bob, First Monday and Eight Simple Rules. His miniseries credits included Space and Streets of Laredo. He also appeared in more than a dozen made-for-TV movies, including The Long Summer of George Adams, The Glitter Dome, Promise, My Name Is Bill W., Barbarians at the Gate, Breathing Lessons, Legalese, The Last Debate and Roughing It.
In addition, he made several telefilms about the further adventures of Jim Rockford, including The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A., The Rockford Files: A Blessing in Disguise and The Rockford Files: Shoot-Out at the Pagoda.
In addition to his Emmy attention for Maverick and The Rockford Files, he received nine other Emmy nominations — seven as an actor, two as a producer.
James Garner was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1991.