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Film, TV legend James Garner, reluctant hero, dies at 86

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James Garner, a master of light comedy who shot to fame in the 1950s as the charming and dry-witted gambler on the TV western “Maverick” and later won an Emmy as the unconventional Los Angeles private eye on “The Rockford Files,” has died. He was 86.

James Garner

James Garner played a wisecracking gambler in the 1950s western “Maverick”(NBC/The Associated Press)

Garner died Saturday at his home, his publicist said. Garner, who lived in Los Angeles, underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1988 and suffered a stroke in 2008. He had been in poor health for some time, but the cause of his death wasn’t immediately known.

Once described by TV critic Tom Shales as having “embodied the crusty, sardonic and self-effacing strain of American masculinity” in his iconic roles as Maverick and Rockford, the Oklahoma-born Garner amassed more than 80 movie and TV-movie credits during his career of more than 50 years.

An off-screen Hollywood maverick, Garner easily moved between TV and the big screen in roles ranging from light comedy to drama.

“I have long thought that Jim Garner was one of the best actors around,” filmmaker Robert Altman once said.

“He is often overlooked because he makes it look so easy, and that is not easy to do,” Altman said. “I don’t know anyone in the business with his charm and charisma who can act so well.”

Garner was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a widowed small-town pharmacist opposite Sally Field’s much younger single mother in the 1985 romantic comedy “Murphy’s Romance.”

His films include “The Children’s Hour,” “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Victor/Victoria,” “Space Cowboys” and “The Notebook.”

But it was television that made Garner a household name, and once he returned to TV in the early 1970s after a decade starring in films, he remained a welcome presence on the small screen.

Signed as a contract player at Warner Bros. in the mid-1950s, Garner – a handsome, 6-foot-3, black-haired Korean War veteran – launched his Hollywood career with guest shots on TV shows such as “Cheyenne” and small parts in a few films.

“Maverick” made its debut on ABC in 1957. Arriving at a time when a slew of westerns such as “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun Will Travel” dominated the airwaves, “Maverick” stood out.

Although the show began as a relatively straight western, the writers quickly began injecting humor into the scripts, a development Garner handled with aplomb.

As Bret Maverick, the dapper roving gambler, Garner was anything but a traditional western hero: He was, as Garner later put it, a reluctant hero.

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