Arthur Gardner dies at 104; produced TV's 'Rifleman,' 'Big Valley'

Arthur Gardner dies at 104; produced TV's 'Rifleman,' 'Big Valley'
Producer Arthur Gardner in his Beverly Hills office in 2012. “I like to read scripts,” he said. “I know we can't make anything anymore. I just love this business too much to go anywhere else in the morning.” (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

For producer Arthur Gardner, known for his TV western series "The Rifleman" and "The Big Valley," life in the business was "a picnic," his favorite catchphrase.

Gardner, who was a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences into his 100s, died Friday at Sunrise Beverly Hills Assisted Living. He was 104.


He died of natural causes, his son Steven said.

Gardner's last film was the 1982 adventure comedy, "Safari 3000," about an auto race in Africa, starring David Carradine and Stockard Channing. But he was still going into his Beverly Hills office at 102.

"I like to read scripts," he told the Times in 2012. "I know we can't make anything anymore. I just love this business too much to go anywhere else in the morning."

Gardner was born Arthur Harold Goldberg on June 7, 1910, in Marinette, Wis. His father owned three general stores in the area, and his mother, a homemaker, died when he was 13. As early as high school, he was smitten with theater and appeared in school plays.

At 18 he headed west to follow his dream of becoming an actor, changing his last name for fear of experiencing anti-Semitism. He landed a small part as a German student in the 1930 war film, "All Quiet on the Western Front."

During World War II he produced and directed Army training films, then teamed with Jules V. Levy and Arnold Laven to form Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions, debuting with the 1952 B-movie thriller about a serial killer, "Without Warning!."

He went on to make a series of movies with Burt Reynolds, including "Sam Whiskey," "White Lightning" and "Gator," which Reynolds directed. But Gardner is perhaps best known for having produced the popular 1950s series "The Rifleman," starring Johnny Crawford and Chuck Connors.

His 1960s series "The Big Valley" starred Barbara Stanwyck. Other actors he worked with during his career included Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and John Wayne.

Gardner was known to make bold moves in the industry, his son Steven said.

"One thing about my father, he was a champion of the underdog. He and his partners hired blacklisted writers and actors during the McCarthy era." Dalton Trumbo wrote a script for them, he said.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who represents the Eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley and is a distant cousin of Gardner's — though the two were very close personally — called the producer, who swam every day until his mid-90s, "an institution."

"For all his successes, the Hollywood stardom stuff never got to his head," Hertzberg says. "He was down to earth and decent, just an elegant guy. And fun — he threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium in honor of his 100th birthday!"

Gardner's wife of 60 years, Marcia Grant Gardner, died in 2002. In addition to his son Steven, he is survived by another son, Douglas of Los Angeles; a brother, George of Orange County; and two grandchildren.