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Garner is shown in a 1982 photo as the titular character of “Bret Maverick,” a sequel to his 1950s TV Western, “Maverick.”

TV, film legend Garner dies

Disarming star of ‘Maverick,’ ‘Rockford Files’

Associated Press photos
Actor James Garner, who died Saturday at 86, won an Emmy for “The Rockford Files” and was an Oscar nominee for “Murphy’s Romance.”

– Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.

James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to further make his point.

This portrait of fleeting disquiet could be understood, and identified with, by every member of the audience. Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale, thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He remained one of the people.

He burst on the scene with this disarming style in the 1950s TV Western “Maverick,” which led to a stellar career in TV and films such as “The Rockford Files” and his Oscar-nominated “Murphy’s Romance.”

The 86-year-old Garner, who was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, was adept at drama and action. But he was best known for his low-key, wisecracking style, especially on his hit TV series, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files.”

His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of John Wayne and the laconic trigger-happiness of Clint Eastwood.

There’s no better display of Garner’s Everyman majesty than the NBC series “The Rockford Files” (1974-80). He played an L.A. private eye and wrongly jailed ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took, while helplessly getting drawn into trouble to help someone who was neither a client nor maybe even a friend. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show’s opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor.

Through it all, Jim Rockford, however down on his luck, persevered hopefully. He wore the veneer of a cynic, but led with his heart. Putting all that on screen was Garner’s magic.

Well into his 70s, the handsome Oklahoman remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock’s father in the film “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The following year, he joined the cast of “8 Simple Rules … For Dating My Teenage Daughter,” playing the grandfather on the sitcom – and helping ground it with his reassuring presence – after star John Ritter, who played the father, died during the show’s second season.

He even scored in commercials. During the late 1970s, he was paired with actress Mariette Hartley in a popular series of ads for Polaroid cameras. Their on-screen banter felt so authentic that many viewers mistakenly believed they were husband and wife.

His first film after “Maverick” established him as a movie actor. It was “The Children’s Hour,” William Wyler’s remake of Lillian Hellman’s lesbian drama that co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

He followed in a successful comedy with Kim Novak, “Boys Night Out,” and then established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster war drama “The Great Escape” and two smash comedies with Doris Day – “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over Darling.”

Throughout his film career, Garner demonstrated his versatility in comedies (“The Art of Love,” “A Man Could Get Killed,” “Skin Game”), suspense (“36 Hours,” “They Only Kill Their Masters,” “Marlowe”), and Westerns (“Duel at Diablo,” “Hour of the Gun,” “Support Your Local Gunfighter”).

In the 1966 racing film “Grand Prix” he starred as an American driver in the Formula One series. Garner, who loved auto racing, formed and owned the American International Racers auto racing team from 1967 through 1969, and drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985.

His only Oscar nomination came for the 1985 “Murphy’s Romance,” a comedy about a small-town love relationship in which he co-starred with Sally Field.

He starred in a musical, “Victor/Victoria” (1982), and a romantic drama, “The Notebook” (2004).

His favorite film, though, was the cynical 1964 war drama “The Americanization of Emily,” which co-starred Julie Andrews.

Unlike most film other stars, Garner made repeated returns to television. The show he often cited as his favorite, “Nichols” (1971-72), and “Bret Maverick” (1981-82) were short-lived, but “The Rockford Files” proved a solid hit, bringing him an Emmy.

Among his notable TV movies: “Barbarians at the Gate,” “Breathing Lessons,” “The Promise,” “My Name Is Bill W.,” “The Streets of Laredo” and “One Special Night.”

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