Born April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma to a carpet layer and his wife, James Scott Bumgarner and his older brothers were sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death in 1933. They were reunited with their father after his second marriage the following year. He would remarry several more times, the last to a stepmother who beat the boys. After the breakup of that marriage, his father moved to Los Angeles, leaving the boys on their own. Young James dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Merchant Marines toward the end of World War II.
The future actor later moved to California, joining the California National Guard from he was deployed during the Korean War in which he earned two purple hearts. In 1954, producer Paul Gregory gave him a nonspeaking role in Broadway’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial so that he could study Henry Fonda’s performance up close. From there, he moved on to TV commercials and guest roles on TV series as James Garner.
Garner met future wife Lois Clarke at an Adlai Stevenson rally in 1956 and married her two weeks later. He had supporting roles in 1956’s Toward the Unknown and The Girl He Left Behind and 1957’s Sayonara, receiving a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer for the latter. That same year, he began a five-year run as the laidback hero of TV’s Maverick which made him a major star.
While still starring in Maverick, Garner had starring roles in several films including Darby’s Rangers, Up Periscope, Cash McCall, The Children’s Hour, and Boys’ Night Out. He reached the apex of his screen career in 1963 and 1964 with The Great Escape, The Thrill of It All, The Wheeler Dealers, Move Over, Darling, The Americanization of Emily, and 36 Hours. He had sporadic success through the remainder of the decade in such films as Grand Prix, Hour of the Gun, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Marlowe.
Garner had the greatest success of his career as the star of TV’s The Rockford Files from 1974-1980, for which he was nominated for which he won an Emmy on the second of his five nominations for the series. The actor’s career remained strong in the 1980s with such films as The Fan, Victor/Victoria, Tank, Murphy’s Romance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Sunset, and TV’s My Names Is Bill W. for which he was nominated for an Emmy.
The actor earned additional Emmy nominations for three early 1990s TV movies, Decoration Day, Barbarians at the Gate, and Breathing Lessons. He later starred in a series of eight TV movies moved on The Rockford Files from 1994-1999. In the first decade of the 21st Century, Garner had major roles in such films as Space Cowboys, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Notebook, and The Ultimate Gift.
James Garner died July 14, 2014 at 86.
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961), directed by William Wyler
Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and Garner had the roles played by Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, and Joel McCrea in Wyler’s 1936 film, These Three, the first version of Lillian Hellman’s play. Like McCrea before him, Garner had already established himself to be equally at home in action films and light comedies as well as straight drama. For both actors, the man in-the-midst of the triangle was a rare foray into a controversial film. The original version eliminated the lesbian angle while the remake artfully tiptoed around it with strong support from Oscar nominee Fay Bainter as Garner’s aunt and Hopkins herself as MacLaine’s aunt.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), directed by John Sturges
This box-office bonanza of the summer of 1963 established both Garner and fellow TV cowboy Steve McQueen as major film stars. The true story of the allied escape from a German POW camp toward the end of World War II was filled with suspense to the last minute as we don’t know who among the extraordinary cast make it and who of them are to be among the 500 of the more than 700 escapees who were rounded up and executed by the SS. McQueen’s motorcycle escape, for which he performed many of his own stunts, and Garner’s harrowing flight to freedom are among the film’s best-remembered moments.
VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982), directed by Blake Edwards
Garner’s enormous chemistry with Julie Andrews in 1964’s The Americanization of Emily helped her chances of securing that year’s Oscar for Mary Poppins. The chemistry between the two was repeated 18 years later in this musical comedy remake of a 1933 German film in which Andrews received another Oscar nomination for playing a down-at-her-heels performer who, coached by Robert Preston’s drag queen, pretends to be a man impersonating a woman that Garner falls in love with thinking she’s a man. Garner and Andrews were reunited 17 years later for the TV movie, One Special Night.
MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), directed by Martin Ritt
Garner finally received an Oscar nomination of his own for his sensitive portrayal of the small-town store owner romancing town newcomer Sally Field, a somewhat younger divorcée with a high-school age son. For Field, this was a reunion with Ritt who had directed her to her first Oscar. One of Ritt’s eight collaborations with writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., they and Field wanted Paul Newman who had worked with Field on Absence of Malice for the male lead. When Newman turned it down, the studio wanted Marlon Brando, but Ritt and Field held out for Garner who Field later declared her best ever screen kisser.
THE NOTEBOOK (2004), directed by Nick Cassavetes
Garner received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Supporting Male for his portrayal of an old man who in his first scene is reading to an old woman (Gena Rowlands) suffering Alzheimer’s Disease. The film, in flashbacks, then follows the early life of the woman as played by Rachel McAdams who has romances with both poor boy Ryan Gosling and rich boy James Masden interspersed with further scenes of Garner and Rowlands. The trick is to figure out which of the two turns out to be Garner. Both Garner and Rowlands, who received a Satellite nomination for her performance, deliver strong late career performances.
JAMES GARNER AND OSCAR
- Murphy’s Romance (1985) – nominated – Best Actor