Happy Birthday James Garner, the handsome everyman from Oklahoma who graced our screens — small and large — for more than six decades.
Garner would be 93 today. You may know him by a host of other names — Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford, Murphy Jones, Bob Hendley, Jason McCullough or Noah Calhoun. For a time early in his life, Garner also answered to soldier.
“My dad was a very complex human being,” said Garner’s daughter Gigi. “In real life he wasn’t exactly what you saw on TV, but he was still able to bring certain elements of his real character to the characters he played. There’s definitely a thread from Maverick to Rockford. He played this tongue-in-cheek kind of guy: laugh at yourself and people will laugh with you, not at you.”
So let’s spin the way back and make this a party of the best James Garner memories.
The Early James Garner Years
Maverick star James Garner quit high school in Norman, Oklahoma, lied about his age and joined the Merchant Marines during the final year of World War II. But he was only 16. And he quickly found out he became too seasick to serve on a ship.
So he moved to California to live with his dad. He re-enrolled in high school, but quit a second time to model Jantzen bathing suits, saying he made more than the teachers. And then came his real stint in the military.
In 1950, Garner became the first man from Oklahoma drafted into the Army. He was in the California National Guard for seven months and then served in the 5th Regimental Combat Team 5th Regimental Combat and the 24th Infantry Division during the Korean War. But he wasn’t James Garner then. He had no idea he’d ever star on TV in shows like Maverick or Rockford Files. He simply was Pvt. James Bumgarner.
Garner earned two Purple Hearts while serving in Korea.
“Do I have fond memories? I guess if you get together with some buddies it’s fond,” Garner once told a reporter about the Korean War. “But it really wasn’t. It was cold and hard. I was one of the lucky ones.”
James Garner and His Big Bret Maverick Break
In 1957, James Garner landed a part that launched his career. For three years, Garner played Bret Maverick, the charming gambler in Maverick, a western with a thick layer of comedy to it.
Garner described the show this way: “There’s a difference between humor and comedy. I don’t do comedy, I do humor,” Garner said.
By this time, Garner also has figured out his favorite acting role model. Henry Fonda.
“I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” Garner told a reporter years ago.
Because it’s a special James Garner day, we’re giving you a little taste of Bret Maverick.
Garner Lands First Major Movie Role
Remember Garner’s military career? His first significant big-screen break, coincidentally, was a war movie. He was the second lead after Steve McQueen in the Great Escape in 1963. The movie was about a group of Allied prisoners trying to escape a super-secure Nazi prison during World War II.
Garner played Bob Hendley, an American serving as a first lieutenant in the RAF Eagle squadron. He was called a “scrounger” in the movie, meaning he was in charge of finding supplies that the soldiers would need after they broke out of jail.
Garner returned to humor with another movie role. He played Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff. McCullough was a gunslinger passing through town who decides to stay and be the sheriff.
By the early 1970s, Roy Huggins, who created Maverick, was thinking of another show. He brought the Rockford Files to life. The show stared Garner as Jim Rockford. And the show probably looked and felt familiar to Maverick fans. Some of the plots still were the same, although the shows were set in different centuries. And Rockford was a private investigator not a card player.
And to celebrate his birthday, here’s a taste of Rockford Files. Did you know James Garner won an Emmy portraying Jim Rockford? Now you do.
Garner and His Post Rockford Files Career
James Garner earned his first and only Academy Award nomination for the 1985 film, Murphy’s Romance. Garner’s love interest was Sally Field, although it took the entire movie for them to realize a romance was possible.
Garner also found a new audience with his commercials with Mariette Hartley. The two were in ads for Polaroid cameras. They were so believable as a couple that many fans assumed the two were married in real life.
“I was making plenty of money. I didn’t need money. It wasn’t for the money,” Garner told the Archive of American Television in a 2010 interview. “I think I wanted to do it to see if I could.”
Garner Starred in One of Most Romantic Movies in Recent History
Garner also played a big role in one of the most romantic movies in recent history. Remember The Notebook? It came out in 2004. The movie starred Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. But the story is told in flashbacks. Garner played the older version of Ryan Gosling. As Noah, Garner read journals to his wife, Allie, played by Gena Rowland. Garner and Rowland’s scenes were in a nursing home. Rowland has dementia.
Everybody loved Garner. That was his deal. He was charming and handsome, but in a very approachable way.
About a decade before he died, Garner’s hometown of Norman, Okla., erected a 10-foot high statue of the star.
What a perfect way to honor him.
So again, happy birthday, James Garner. TV and movie audiences, everywhere, miss your talent.