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James Garner

Actor.

Born: April 7, 1928; Died: July 19, 2014

JAMES Garner, who has died aged 86, could have been central casting's notion of the ideal leading man: tall, handsome, effortlessly charming and, as the critic Clive James once remarked, "worth watching even when the script is routine".

He played the title characters in two highly successful and fondly remembered television programmes, Maverick and The Rockford Files, and was one of the first actors to enjoy similar prominence on the big screen. In 1973, John Wayne described him as the finest actor working in America.

It may have been Garner's television success, however, which stalled his movie career, which included roles in films such as Sayonara (with Marlon Brando), Move Over, Darling (with Doris Day), The Great Escape (with Steve McQueen) and Murphy's Romance (with Sally Field). He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the last of these, but the director had to fight to cast him, since he was regarded by the film studios as a television star.

In later years he enjoyed a revival, appearing in Sunset (1988), in which he reprised the role of Wyatt Earp which he played in Hour Of The Gun (1967); putting in an appearance as a US Marshall in the film remake of Maverick, with Mel Gibson in the title role. He also popped up in Space Cowboys (2000), and played the older version of Ryan Gosling's character in the 2004 weepie The Notebook.

He was born James Scott Bumgarner at Norman, Oklahoma. James was the youngest of three brothers, the eldest of whom, Jack, also became an actor and changed his name to Garner. Their father Weldon was a carpet fitter.

When James was five, his mother died and he and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. In 1934, his father remarried and the boys returned to live with him and his new wife, Wilma. In his autobiography, Garner described the regular beatings and abuse he and his brothers received at her hands.

After dropping out of high school in Norman, James took a series of menial jobs. Towards the end of the Second World War, when he was 16, he enlisted in the United States Merchant Marines, where he was hampered by chronic seasickness. After the end of hostilities, Garner enrolled at Hollywood High School where he was nicknamed "Slick" and voted most popular student.

He was also persuaded to take a job modelling bathing trunks, which paid $25 an hour. Realising he was earning more than his teachers, he quit school, but soon discovered he disliked modelling and returned to Norman, where he pumped petrol, played sports, and made an abortive attempt to get his high school diploma.

He decided to re-enlist, first joining the National Guard and then, after seven months, being sent as part of the 5th Regimental Combat team to Korea. He was wounded twice during his 14 months overseas, receiving the Purple Heart for the first wound, when shrapnel hit him in the face and hand. The second injury was less dignified. He was struck in the buttocks by friendly fire from a US jet while trying to dive into a foxhole. He was finally awarded a second Purple Heart for this incident in 1983, 32 years later.

After demob, Garner was encouraged by a schoolfriend to try out for a role in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and landed a largely silent role as a judge. He started to work in television commercials and made his big screen debut in Toward The Unknown (1956). The following year saw him land the role of the professional gambler Bret Maverick, and the series became an unexpected hit.

It was produced by Warner Brothers and during its three-year run, Garner also made four films for the studio, Darby's Rangers, Up Periscope, a cameo as Maverick in Alias Jesse James and Cash McCall, alongside Natalie Wood.

But Garner then fell out with the studio over his contract, and left Maverick in 1960. The following decade was the height of his film career, with pictures such as The Children's Hour with Audrey Hepburn (1961), 1964's The Americanization Of Emily, the cult motor racing film Grand Prix (1966) and the following year's Hour Of The Gun, in which he played Wyatt Earp.

The biggest commercial success was John Sturges' classic The Great Escape, in which he played Hendley, "the scrounger" who teams up with Donald Pleasence's character, a forger whose eyesight is failing. The comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) was another hit, though the sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter! fared less well.

Garner took on the role for which he is probably best remembered, the ex-convict and private investigator Jim Rockford, in 1974. Each episode began with a message on Rockford's answering machine, often from creditors (Rockford lived in a trailer and had continual run-ins with the LAPD and unhelpful clients). The show rested almost entirely on Garner's charm and his cantankerous relationship with his father Rocky, played by Noah Beery Jr, and was an enormous hit. It ran for six seasons until, in 1980. Garner withdrew because the constant action scenes had damaged his knees (he later had both replaced).

Garner reprised the role in several television movies in the 1990s, but the series was also the subject of a long-running dispute over royalties and syndication rights through much of the 1980s, with Garner claiming that Universal Studios owed him $16 million.

In 1982, he appeared in Victor Victoria but, despite his Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance in 1985, he was afterwards in few really successful films, though his own performances were never less than effective. He was particularly good in Twilight (1998), holding his own in a cast that included Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing.

Garner had a quintuple bypass in 1988. His hobbies included golf and motor racing and martial arts; he studied with Bruce Lee, with whom he appeared in Marlowe (1969).

He was a staunch supporter of the University of Oklahoma, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and of the Democratic Party.

He married, in 1956, Lois Clarke, two weeks after meeting her at a political rally for Adlai Stevenson. He adopted her seven-year-old daughter and they had another daughter together.

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