'Rockford Files' Star James Garner Dies at 86

James Garner
James Garner
 AP Photo/Nick Ut

James Garner, the charming leading man from Oklahoma who made it look easy on NBC's The Rockford Files and in films opposite Doris Day, Julie Andrews and Sally Field during more than a half-century in show business, has died. He was 86.

The actor died at his Brentwood home on Saturday night, Los Angeles police officer Alonzo Iniquez confirmed to The Associated Press. TMZ first reported the news on Saturday. 

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The amiable actor was best known for playing the Los Angeles private eye in Rockford, which ran from 1974 to 1980, before knee and back injuries — many sustained because he did his own stunts — forced him to quit. "I couldn't take that many beatings anymore," he once said. "Every hiatus, I had a knee operation for five straight years, and sometimes for both knees."

Garner was nominated for the Emmy for best actor in a drama series for five consecutive years, winning in 1977. Rockford, produced by Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell, racked up three best drama nominations from 1978 to 1980 and took the trophy in 1978.

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Garner also toplined the ABC Western-comedy hybrid Maverick (1957 to 1962), also produced by Huggins, in which he starred as a dapper cardsharp who would just as soon slip out the back door than face down a gunman. "Bravery gets you nothing but hurt," he once said. Both TV series showcased Garner's sense of humor and expertise in playing the reluctant hero.

The dark-haired star also appeared in dozens of films, including two light romantic comedies from 1963 with Day, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling; two with Andrews (1964's The Americanization of Emily and 1982's Victor Victoria); and one with Field, the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy's Romance, for which he received his lone Oscar nomination.

Whatever his roles, Garner's acting appeared effortless. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote in 1986 that "James Garner is to the American character what David Niven was to the English character: a lover in preference to a fighter (but capable of heroics), worldly and charming with elements of the vagabond and the debonair rascal, a sort of innocent rogue with an easy way with urbane dialogue."

Garner was fastidious about the kind of roles and movies in which he performed.

"I don't want to do movies with a lot of profanity, and I don’t want to take my clothes off," he once said. "I don't do horror pictures, or I would take my clothes off. Seriously, I'm simply not an exhibitionist."

His guy-next-door demeanor also vaulted him to stardom in TV commercials. Teamed with Mariette Hartley as a bantering couple, Garner appeared in a series of Polaroid spots in the '80s that were invariably more entertaining than the shows they sponsored. 

At the time, people would walk into a store and ask for a "James Garner camera." His pairing with Hartley was so endearing that folks used to regularly ask him, "How's your wife?" meaning Hartley.

Garner's real wife, Lois, survives him. They dated for two weeks and were married for 56 years.

James Scott Bumgarner was born of European and Cherokee ancestry on April 7, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma. When his mother died, Garner, then 4, and his two brothers went to live with relatives. At 16, he joined the Merchant Marine Academy for a stint that would be shortened because of seasickness, then followed his father to Los Angeles. He briefly attended Hollywood High School but left when he got a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits for ads.

"I wasn't interested until I heard they were paying $25 an hour," Garner wrote in his 2011 autobiography The Garner Files. "That was more than the principal made!"

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Garner was drafted into the Army, served in combat for 14 months during the Korean War and received two Purple Hearts. After his discharge ("first time I ever got kicked out of anything honorably," he quipped), he returned to Norman and attended the University of Oklahoma on the GI Bill.

The introverted Garner said he never really wanted to act, nor did he train for it. He came to show business haphazardly: A pal, Paul Gregory, had become an agent-producer and offered him a nonspeaking part as a judge in the 1954 Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, directed by Charles Laughton and starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan.

"I learned to listen," he told the Archive of American Television in a 1999 interview. "The trouble with a lot of actors is they are waiting for their line, waiting for themselves to speak. If you listen, you become involved. … I learned to never anticipate. That helped me a lot as an actor."

After signing with Warner Bros., appearing in several films in 1956 and playing bit parts on ABC's Cheyenne, Garner got the role of wisecracking ladies man Bret Maverick, starting at $500 a week. The series, airing on Sunday nights, often bested The Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings.

When he was laid off as a consequence of a writers strike that shut down production, he sued Warners (his lawyer was future Disney president Frank Wells) and got out of his contract.

(TV's Maverick, by the way, was a member of the original ownership group of the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA expansion team that began play in 1980.)

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The movie business came calling, and Garner soon made such films as the POW classic The Great Escape (1963); the 1964 military comedy-drama The Americanization of Emily (he played what he described as a "downright coward" in what he called his favorite film); Grand Prix (1966), which got him hooked on auto racing; Mister Buddwing (1966), in which he played an amnesiac wandering the streets of New York; Hour of the Gun (1967) as Wyatt Earp; Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and a 1971 sequel; Marlowe (1969) as the fabled L.A. gumshoe; and Skin Game (1971), another Western. Some were produced by his company, Cherokee Productions.

After starring as a turn-of-the-century sheriff in the series Nichols (1971 to 1972), Garner hit his stride in 1974, when he was signed to star as Jim Rockford, who lived in a trailer in a Malibu beach parking lot after serving a stint in San Quentin for a crime he didn't commit. Rockford had a penchant for reopening and cracking cold cases, often riling the police. Garner's insouciant style made the Friday night show from Universal TV a fan favorite.

"I would get beat up at least twice per show," he once said. "I don't know about people; they like to see me get whipped. I guess it's because they know I'm going to come back later and get my licks in."

Garner said he had to quit the show under doctors' orders, and Universal sued. He later battled the studio in court over syndication profits, and it took years to resolve that dispute. Because of the conflict, the Rockford character would not reemerge until 1994. Garner then reprised the role in eight 1990s telefilms.

In Murphy's Romance, Garner played a freethinking, small-town pharmacist who gallantly offers a struggling young woman (Field) a helping hand and friendly shoulder. Field once said that her onscreen kiss with Garner was the best one she had ever experienced on film.

A year earlier, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his compelling performance as a terminally ill physician opposite Mary Tyler Moore in the 1984 telefilm Heartsounds.

Memorable credits later in his career include an Emmy for the telefilm Promise (1986), playing a man who takes care of his schizophrenic brother; My Name Is Bill W (1989), a TV drama of the life of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous; the HBO movie Barbarians at the Gate, based on the book detailing the viciousness of corporate acquisitions and mergers; the sitcom 8 Simple Rules, which he joined following the death of John Ritter; and Space Cowboys (2000) opposite Clint Eastwood.

He also had a role in the 1994 movie Maverick, starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. And in 2004, Garner played the older version of Ryan Gosling in the Nicholas Sparks-adapted The Notebook opposite Gena Rowlands.

In addition to Lois, survivors include a daughter and stepdaughter. One of his older brothers, Jack, also an actor, died in September 2011.

During the Archive of American Television interview, Garner was asked about becoming a star. "It's not something I wanted to achieve, being famous," he said. "I was just trying to make a living."

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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