James Garner Dies

The Maverick and Rockford Files star suffered a stroke in May 2008

Photo: Getty

James Garner, for more than 50 years one of Hollywood’s most likable leading men on the big screen and on TV, died at his Los Angeles home Saturday night, reports TMZ. He was 86.

The star, best known for the Maverick and The Rockford Files TV series, had suffered what had been described as a minor stroke in 2008.

Besides his popular work on the small screen, Garner also appeared opposite Julie Andrews in two critically acclaimed movies, 1964’s The Americanization of Emily and 1982’s Victor/Victoria. In addition, he costarred opposite Doris Day in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963), and added his own charm to perhaps one of the greatest buddy movies of all time, 1963’s The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen.

Another box-office hit was the 1966 racing film Grand Prix, which put him in widescreen Cinerama.

Besides appearing as an aged astronaut with Clint Eastwood in 2000’s Space Cowboys, Garner had later roles in the 2004 film The Notebook and as Katey Sagal’s father on the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules.

Dickensian Childhood

Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, the future star had a childhood that played like a modern day Oliver Twist. He was only 5 when his mother died, and he and his two brothers were farmed out to various relatives.

Three years later the family was reunited when their father, Weldon (who subsequently married four times), introduced them to their first stepmother, a mean-spirited woman who regularly beat them.

“Mostly me,” Garner told PEOPLE in 1985 – the same year he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Murphy’s Romance, with Sally Field.

“My dad worked hard as an upholsterer and carpet layer,” said Garner, “but he was a rake and he drank a lot. He’d come home bombed and make us sing to him or get a whipping.”

From that experience, Garner developed a lifelong sympathy for the underdog. “I cannot stand to see little people picked on by big people,” he said. “If a director starts abusing people, I’ll just jump in.”

At 14, he left home and did odd jobs. Two years later he lied about his age and joined the merchant marine, but left in less than a year.

Drifting to L.A., Garner attended Hollywood High, where he developed into a football hero – only to prove shy off the field.

“All the girls liked him,” said a childhood friend, “but Jim hardly dated.”

Male Model

Still, Garner’s hunky teen torso won him his first on-camera job: a Jantzen swimsuit ad – something he later regretted. “Ever since I did that darn ad, I’ve hated having my picture taken,” he said.

The Korean War interrupted his modeling career. He was wounded twice and won two Purple Hearts. “I wasn’t a hero,” he said modestly. “I just got in the way a lot.”

It was also luck, he claimed, that got him into acting. A pal from back home who’d become a producer gave him the small role of a judge in Broadway’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. The star of the show, Henry Fonda, became his model and mentor.

Warner Bros. made Garner a contract player, which led, in 1957, to his starring as the shy Western hero on Maverick – at the bargain price of $500 a week. After four years he sued and got out of his contract.

Litigation also surrounded his departure from Rockford in 1979, after five years on the show. He claimed all the stunts ruined his health – and that the studio’s bookkeeping cheated him out of millions in profits. (After a 10-year legal battle, Universal and Garner settled their financial dispute out of court.)

On a happier note, in 1956 he met aspiring actress Lois Clarke at a Democratic rally, and, he said, “She just knocked me out.” Two weeks later they were married.

Already the mother of a daughter, Kim, by a former marriage, Lois had another daughter with Garner, Gigi. All three women survive him.

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