August 04, 2014 12:00 PM

James Garner didn’t know how to play the bad guy. During filming of his 2004 movie The Notebook, the actor tried to steal away for a game of golf when a tour bus pulled up and a horde of women poured out, bombarding him with autograph and photo requests. “The golf had to be forgotten that day,” recalls costar Gena Rowlands. “He was so charming, the way he handled it. He was so happy to see them. He took all the time in the world chatting, and they snapped pictures on their phones. He was a really great guy.”

Garner, who died from natural causes on July 19 at age 86, became a superstar to several generations, building an extraordinary half-century career defined by his relatability, all-American masculinity and self-deprecating sense of humor. A star of two hit series – Maverick and The Rockford Files – he also made more than 40 movies, including 1985’s Murphy’s Romance, for which he scored an Oscar nod. Offscreen too, he was one of the good guys: a Korean War veteran who marched for civil rights and stayed married for 57 years to his wife, Lois, after dating her for just two weeks. “He was an icon,” says Mariette Hartley, who was famously mistaken for Garner’s wife in their long-running Polaroid commercials from the ’70s and ’80s. “When he was on that screen, there was no one better. He was one of the great unsung actors.” Adds his two-time costar Doris Day: “The world has lost an exceptional human being.”

Garner’s journey from Oklahoma schoolboy to formidable leading man was marked first by childhood tragedy and later by high-stakes wartime danger. Born James Bumgarner, he was 4 when his mother died, leaving three small sons in the care of an alcoholic father and a new stepmom who regularly beat them. “Mostly me,” Garner recalled to PEOPLE in 1985.

At 17, after a short stint as a Merchant Marine, the already rugged-looking teen moved to Los Angeles, where he was voted Most Popular Student at Hollywood High School and landed work as a swimsuit model. But he put his career on hold to serve in the Army during the Korean War, earning two Purple Hearts – about which he was typically self-effacing. “I dived into a foxhole headfirst a little late and got hit in the backside,” he told PEOPLE in 1983 about his injuries. “It’s such a wide target.”

In 1954 a producer friend set him up with a nonspeaking role as a judge in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, who would go on to become a lifelong friend. “I learned just by watching him work,” said Garner. Two years later he was back in Hollywood as a Warner Bros. contract player. The die-hard Democrat soon met his future wife, Lois Clarke, at a 1956 rally for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Two weeks later they were married. “We went to dinner every night for 14 nights,” he told PEOPLE in 2005. “I was just absolutely nuts about her.” Together he and Lois raised daughters Kimberly (from Lois’s previous marriage), 65, and Gigi, 56.

His career soon took off. In 1957, Maverick, starring Garner as a dashing gambler in the Old West, became a huge hit, though Garner thought his contract was so unfair he “felt like a ham in a smokehouse.” His greatest success came in 1974 as beleaguered private eye Jim Rockford, even though the series put a physical and mental strain on the actor. “I had seven knee operations,” said Garner, who also suffered from bouts of depression. “Every hiatus I had one or both knees operated on, and then I’d be back working on them and they’d give again.”

The passing decades, and even coronary bypass surgery in 1989 and a 2008 stroke, couldn’t diminish Garner’s sense of humor. “I talked to him a couple of months ago,” recalled Rowlands. “He was having a hard time of it and had been ill for a long time. But he was even funny about that.” And he never missed an opportunity to keep the laughs coming. Interviewed by PEOPLE on the set of Mel Gibson’s 1994 big-screen take on Maverick, Garner cracked, “I’ve been working 48 years and here I am doing Maverick [again]. Can’t get a hit, I guess.”

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