From Westerns to war films, James Garner had a relaxed charisma all his own. As a POW, as a gunfighter, as a private eye, Garner wore his charm like an old sweater – it never went out of style, and it always fit.
In the wake of Garner’s death Saturday at the age of 86, let’s look back at seven of his most memorable roles, all of which showcase what critic Todd VanDerWerff calls Garner’s rare ability to “make his essential James Garner-ness work in just about any situation.”
Though he’d had parts on the big screen for years, Garner came to stardom on television, playing roguish gambler Bret Maverick in this TV Western. As one of the first TV antiheroes, Garner had a knack for the series’ then-innovative blend of action and comedy always kept the elder Maverick brother on the right side of justice – if not always the law.
The Great Escape, 1963
A Korean War veteran himself, Garner played “The Scrounger” in this ensemble hit set in a World War II prison camp. Second billed behind only Steve McQueen, Garner has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly Donald Pleasence as the nearly blind Lt. Blythe.
The Americanization of Emily, 1964
A year later, Garner took his screen persona in a darker direction for The Americanization of Emily, his own favorite of all his films. Working off a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Garner puts his liberal ideals on display as a pacifist Navy man who preaches cowardice as the true solution to the endless horrors of war.
The Rockford Files, 1974-1980
In nearly all Garner tributes, The Rockford Files appears in the first paragraph. And for good reason – the ’70s private-eye drama has been his most enduring work. As the perpetually broke L.A. detective, Garner put a new spin on the hardbitten private-eye archetype, uncovering Southern California mysteries with a wink and a smirk.
Garner’s characters were often in on the joke, but here, playing a man who loved a woman impersonating a man who played women, Garner proved he could pull off befuddlement, too.
Murphy’s Romance, 1985
Garner received his only Oscar nomination for this ’80s drama, in which he plays a middle-aged pharmacist who seduces Sally Field with the power of kindness.
The Notebook, 2004
While their grandparents remember him from Maverick and their parents remember him from Rockford, to Millennials, Garner will always be Duke, the elderly version of Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook. In a film full of heightened melodrama, Garner provides a helpful grounding. If he says his love has supernatural powers, we’d better believe him.