'Maverick,' 'Rockford Files' Star James Garner, Cherokee, Dies at 86
Television and film actor James Garner, most famous for his starring roles in the series Maverick and Rockford Files, as well as his Oscar-nominated performance in Murphy's Romance, has died at the age of 86.
Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1938. His mother Mildred was half Cherokee; her father (James' grandfather) was, according to the New York Times, "a full-blooded Cherokee." Mildred died when James was four years old, and his childhood never recovered. His father remarried, but James' stepmother turned abusive, causing him to leave home at 14.
Garner joined the Merchant Marines, but that career was cut short when he discovered he was prone to extreme seasickness. He ended up in Los Angeles (where his father was then living) and did some modeling for Jantzen swimsuits -- but Hollywood would have to wait. There were odd jobs aplenty, a move back to Oklahoma, a stint in the National Guard, and then Korea. Garner was, according to his official biography, the first draftee called from the state of Oklahoma. He was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.
Back in California after the war, Garner was 25 when he took his first acting job. It was a small non-speaking part in a stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial; the cast included Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan, and Garner's time with the production amounted to a crash course in acting. He would later say of Fonda, "I swiped practically all my acting style from him."
Garner found he didn't actually like stage acting, but became a relatively quick success in Hollywood. In 1957 he played his first leading role in a feature film (Darby's Rangers, released in 1958) and was cast as Bret Maverick, one of two Maverick brothers, on a new TV series named after them. His run on Maverick ended in 1960, and he concentrated on film in the decade that followed. Memorable productions included The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).
With The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974-80, Garner created one of the most compelling figures in the crowded field of TV detectives. Rockford lived in a trailer by the beach, he was perpetually broke, and he took a lot of punches. And there were always car chases -- a reflection of Garner's real-life love of fast driving. He drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1978, and 1985.
After Rockford Files, Garner made a return to his Maverick persona in the series Bret Maverick, and periodically reprised his Rockford character in Rockford Files TV movies. He acted in feature films and TV movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s, finding his biggest critical success with Murphy's Romance (1985) opposite Sally Field.
Garner is survived by a number of family members, including a daughter, Gigi, who worked with her father at the production company he founded in 1965, named in tribute to his Native heritage: Cherokee Productions.
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