James Garner, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was tall, handsome and athletic, all qualities that made for longevity as a leading man.
Garner, a native Oklahoman, came to fame on television as the laid-back Bret Maverick in the 1950s western, went on to film stardom in the 1960s, then returned to television, most notably for an Emmy-winning run in the lighthearted detective series “The Rockford Files.”
Shifting easily between comedy and drama, imbued with a sardonic charm, Garner was part of a line of Hollywood leading men, extending back to Cary Grant and forward to George Clooney, who meld good looks, charisma and self-deprecating wit. He played almost all the standard movie and television roles — cowboy, soldier, detective, astronaut, race car driver — but put his distinctive brand on each.
After appearing in supporting roles in such features as “The Girl He Left Behind,” “Toward the Unknown” and the acclaimed “Sayonara” with Marlon Brando, Garner hit pay dirt as the charming professional gambler in this ABC western comedy beginning in 1957.
Sharing the lead with Jack Kelly, who played Bret Maverick’s brother Bart, Garner’s deft performance opened the way to movie stardom, and he left the show in 1960. But he returned to the character twice, first in the short-lived 1981 TV series “Bret Maverick,” and then in the 1994 movie costarring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster.
“Boys’ Night Out”
Considered slightly risqué in its day, this 1962 farce directed by Michael Gordon casts Garner as the divorced friend of three middle-aged married guys (Tony Randall, Howard Duff and Howard Morris) who all commute to New York on the same train. The married guys are bored with their lives and fantasize about getting an apartment they could use as a “love nest” for trysts with other women. They ask Garner to find an apartment and a girl to go with it. And he does. Kim Novak plays the woman Garner hires as “housekeeper.” In reality, she’s a sociology graduate student studying “adolescent fantasies of the adult suburban male.”
“The Thrill of It All”
One of two comedies teaming Garner and Doris Day in 1963 (the other was the tepid “Move Over, Darling”), this romance was penned by Carl Reiner and directed by Norman Jewison. Garner plays a successful doctor married to a stay-at-home mom played by Day. Garner’s character starts to unravel and becomes jealous when she becomes the star of TV soap commercials and begins to out-earn him.
“The Great Escape”
Though Steve McQueen has the flashier role as the Cooler King in this 1963 World War II epic chronicling a mass escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp, Garner also gives a solid performance. Garner plays Flight Lt. Hendley, who is nicknamed “The Scrounger” because of his uncanny ability to get exactly what the men need for the escape. John Sturges directed. A box office hit and considered by many a classic, the film was nominated for only one Oscar, for editing.
“The Americanization of Emily”
Paddy Chayefsky wrote this dark 1964 comedy-drama that marked the first pairing of Garner and Julie Andrews. Set in London in 1944 during the weeks leading up to D-Day, the film gave Garner one of his most nuanced early roles as the cynical Lt. Cmd. Charles Madison, a self-proclaimed coward whose principal job is to keep higher-ranked officers supplied with women, liquor and good times. Charlie’s cold heart begins to melt as he spends time with an earnest war widow played by Andrews. Arthur Hiller directed.
Filmed in Europe with an international cast and directed by John Frankenheimer, the nearly three-hour epic is essentially a soap opera set in the hyper-masculine and dangerous world of Formula One racing, circa 1966. Garner is Pete Aron, an American racer looking for a comeback. Yves Montand plays Garner’s world-weary chief rival and Eva Marie Saint and Jessica Walter the mostly decorative leading ladies. The viscerally photographed and edited race sequences, including some spectacular crashes, are highlights.
“Support Your Local Sheriff!”
This 1969 western spoof was a hit with critics and audiences and one of Garner’s funniest comedies. Garner is Jason McCullough, a man from “back east” who moseys through a lawless frontier town on his way to “Australia.” Though a series of wacky circumstances, Jason ends up sheriff and angers the all-powerful Danby clan led by Walter Brennan. Joan Hackett is on hand as Garner’s love interest and Jack Elam is his deputy. Two years later, Garner, Elam and other members of the cast starred in the less-successful “Support Your Local Gunfighter.”
Garner steps into the role played earlier by Humphrey Bogart and others as Raymond Chandler’s famed gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, in this updated version of Chandler’s 1949 novel, “The Little Sister.” The 1969 thriller finds Marlowe in a truckload of trouble when he’s hired to locate the brother of his client (Sharon Farrell). Along the way he meets with a blackmailed movie star (Gayle Hunnicutt), an exotic dancer (Rita Moreno) and even a karate expert (Bruce Lee in his first U.S. film).
“The Rockford Files”
After a short-lived return to series TV in the offbeat western, “Nichols,” Garner landed this witty 1974-1980 NBC series created by Roy Huggins, who had produced “Maverick,” and Stephen J. Cannell. Rockford, a wrongfully convicted ex-con-turned private eye, tooled around Los Angeles in a Pontiac Firebird, lived in a modest mobile home on Malibu beach and solved crimes with the help of an oddball entourage played by Noah Beery Jr., Joe Santos and Stuart Margolin. In the 1990s, Garner reprised the role for a series of popular CBS TV movies.
Garner and Julie Andrews teamed up 18 years after “Emily” for this musical comedy that explores sexual identities. Set in 1930s Paris, the film centers on a starving British singer (Andrews) who is befriended by a gay nightclub entertainer named Toddy (Robert Preston). He comes up with a plan to get Victoria a gig — she will masquerade as a man playing a female impersonator, with Toddy as “Victor’s” gay lover. Enter the mustached Garner as the macho King Marchand, a Chicago gangster who finds himself perplexingly attracted to “Victor” after he catches the nightclub act. Blake Edwards, Andrews’ husband, wrote and directed.
Garner earned his only Oscar nomination for this late-in-life romantic comedy directed by Martin Ritt and released in 1985. Garner plays a small-town druggist who falls in love with a divorced mother of a teenage son trying to make it as a horse rancher, portrayed by Sally Field. Brian Kerwin is the obligatory obstacle separating the pair. Garner lost the Oscar to William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Garner’s role of an aging former astronaut in Clint Eastwood’s sentimental 2000 drama fits him like a comfortable old shoe. Four retired astronauts — Garner, Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland — are sent back into space and save the world.
This 2004 tear-jerker, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, may be best known for launching the careers of Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, but Garner received warm notices for his supporting role alongside Gena Rowlands.