April 7 (1928) is the birthday of James Garner, well-known actor in many movies and TV shows and series. But to me he will always be Bret Maverick, the professional gambler in the comedy TV Western series “Maverick”.
Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma to Weldon Warren Bumgarner and Mildred Scott (Meek). He had two brothers, Jack and Charles, both older. Their mother died when James Garner was just five. The boys lived with relatives for a while but were reunited as a family when the father remarried the next year.
The second marriage was not happy, and the boys grew to hate their stepmother. When James was 14 he had an ugly fight with her and she left. Weldon Bumgarner then moved to Los Angeles, but the boys stayed in Norman.
When James was 16 he joined the Merchant Marine near the end of WWII. He liked the service, but he suffered from seasickness constantly. He joined his father in Los Angeles and attended Hollywood High School for a while. But he then moved back to Norman and attended Norman High School. He dropped out before graduation, but he did finish a diploma while in the Army.
Garner enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard and was sent to Korea during the Korean War as a member of the 5th Regimental Combat Team. He was wounded by a mortar shell and received a Purple Heart medal. He qualified for a second Purple Heart by being wounded by friendly fire.
After the war in 1954 Garner took a small, nonspeaking role in a Broadway production of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial”. From there he moved on to TV commercials and finally TV roles. In 1955 he was considered for the lead role in the TV show “Cheyenne” but wound up with only a supporting role in the pilot. He got his first movie role in 1956 in “Toward the Unknown”.
It was about this time that Garner shortened the name Bumgarner, because a studio had already shortened the name without his permission. He later changed his name legally to Garner.
In 1956 he played a role in the time-travel episode “The Man from 1997” in the TV anthology series “Conflict”. The producer, Roy Huggins, was impressed by Garner’s comedic performance in a role that wasn’t meant to be comedic. That inspired Huggins to pick Garner in 1957 for the role of Bret Maverick in the new Warner Brothers TV Western series “Maverick”.
Warner Brothers had a stable of TV Westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “Maverick” (1957-1962), “Cheyenne” (1955-1963), “Colt .45” (1957-1960), “Sugarfoot” (1957-1960), “Lawman” (1958-1962), “Bronco” (1958-1962), and “The Alaskans” (1959-1960).
The show “Maverick” was hugely popular, and it made Garner a household name. Production demands were so heavy that a brother, Bart Maverick, was created after seven episodes. He was played by Jack Kelly. The studio could then shoot two shows at the same time, but crossover episodes in which both Bret and Bart appeared were very popular.
Bret Maverick (and Bart) was a cardsharp who traveled all over the West and on Mississippi riverboats just looking for a profitable poker game but always getting into trouble anyway. Reluctant to get into a fight, he was courageous when needed but preferred to bluff or trick his way out of a situation. Garner had charisma in the role and a perfect comedic touch.
Garner left the show after only three seasons because of a dispute with Warner Brothers. Roger Moore played a character “Beau Maverick” for a while and Robert Colbert played a Garner lookalike, “Brent Maverick”, but only briefly. Jack Kelly carried the show the last two years, with reruns featuring James Garner.
Garner made Western movies, like “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend” (1957), “Duel at Diablo” (1966), and “Hour of the Gun” (1967). Two Westerns which I liked and were played for laughs were “Support Your Local Sheriff” (1969)
Garner made lots of other movies including comedies, romances, and war films. His TV series “The Rockford Files” was particularly popular.
Garner was married to Lois Clarke from 1956 until his death in 2014. Lois had a daughter from a previous marriage, and Garner and Lois had a daughter of their own.
Garner loved golf and car racing and was an enthusiastic football fan.
He was a big supporter of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. In 2003 he endowed the James Garner Chair in the School of Drama.
His knees gave him much trouble, and he eventually had both of them replaced. He had quintuple bypass surgery in 1988.
Garner died on July 19, 2014, age 86, of a heart attack.