‘Maverick’: James Garner Said He ‘Swiped’ His Acting Style from This Legendary Western Actor

by Suzanne Halliburton

James Garner, who starred as Bret Maverick in Maverick, brought his everyman likability to just about every role he played.

He was genuine on screen and much like the same guy who grew up in Oklahoma, served in the Army and worked every odd job until he figured out that acting was what he enjoyed most.

And maybe there was a reason America embraced Garner the way it did another actor. Did he remind you of Henry Fonda?

“I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” Garner told a reporter years ago. Garner’s first role was a non-speaking part in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. A fellow Oklahoma native added Garner to the cast. The movie starred Fonda. Garner sat back and watched a master at work.

Fonda “was very subtle in his movements,” Garner said. “And you know, you can’t copy him. (But) I learned not to make extra moves.”

James Garner’s Daughter Said Her Dad Brought His Real Character to Maverick, Other Shows

Garner died in 2014. Five years later, his daughter Gigi talked about what made her dad so great on both the small and big screen.

“My dad was a very complex human being,” she said. “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.”

Garner landed the role of Bret Maverick in 1957. The show liked to poke fun at other westerns. The main characters were a couple of brothers who liked to gamble. They also quoted their Pappy throughout the show’s run. Garner even played Pappy Maverick in an episode.

Some of the best Pappy Maverick lines — “Work is fine for killin’ time, but it’s a shaky way to make a living.”

Or: “The only time you quit when you’re winning is after you’ve won it all.”

And: “If you haven’t got something nice to say about a man, it’s time to change the subject.”

James Garner played Bret Maverick for three seasons. More than a decade later, he also found TV fame as another likeable character in James Rockford, a private detective in The Rockford Files. Roy Huggins, who created Maverick, also was behind the Rockford Files. Many of the same plots from the 1950s western were reimagined in the 1970s drama. It all worked. Garner won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama in 1977. And somewhere in his mind, he was thanking Henry Fonda and Bret Maverick.