‘Maverick,’ ‘Rockford Files’ Star James Garner Was Once Persuaded to Run for Governor of California

by Jennifer Shea
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“Maverick” star James Garner was not just an actor. He was also, almost, a California gubernatorial hopeful.

Garner died of a heart attack due to coronary artery disease in July of 2014. But before he did, Garner, a fervent Democrat, considered running for governor of California in the 1990 election.

However, Garner ultimately decided against a run. And former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein became the Democratic Party’s nominee instead. She lost to Republican Pete Wilson.  

Democratic Party Leaders Tried to Recruit James Garner

California state Senator Herschel Rosenthal had asked Garner to run for governor, fearing other nominees would be defeated, the Associated Press reported in 1989.

People magazine had just celebrated the former Oklahoman as “the last real man” in America. “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” were popular shows. And Garner had recently received an Oscar nomination for his film “Murphy’s Romance.”

“Everybody knows him,” Rosenthal told the Associated Press at the time.

But Garner rebuffed the politicians.

“He said, ‘I’m making $6 million a year, what do I need that for?’ or words to the effect,” Rosenthal said.

Garner’s publicist, Pat Kingsley, said Garner felt politics was the wrong field for him. But Garner had been involved in environmental and civil rights issues and was an outspoken Democrat. And Rosenthal felt a “non-politician” candidate was necessary to defeat then-Senator Pete Wilson. The Democratic frontrunners at the time, California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Feinstein, wouldn’t cut it, he believed.

The state Senator added that Garner, like Ronald Reagan, looked good on a horse. And in a field where optics are everything, that couldn’t hurt.

Garner Criticized Actors Who Ran for Office

In his memoir “The Garner Files,” James Garner had some harsh words for actors who chose to run for office – but perhaps not coincidentally, only the Republican ones.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, he wrote, was unfit to govern California. And Garner had witnessed Ronald Reagan’s tenure as Screen Actors Guild president close-up; he was vice president at the time. Garner said Reagan never had an original thought and needed to be told what to say.

“Too many actors have run for office,” Garner wrote. “There’s one difference between me and them: I know I’m not qualified.”

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