Actor James Garner has been reported to be dead at the age of 86 and the golden age of the TV western has lost another star. The six foot two inch tall actor was just one of several young men who starred in television tales of the old west. He did get the jump on most of his contemporaries by playing the lead in the 1956 series Maverick. Clint Eastwood, whom Garner would work with later in the 2000 film Space Cowboys, did not start work in Rawhide till 1959 and he was not the star, or co-star, but part of an ensemble cast when he began in the eternal trail drive. Clint Walker did beat James to the punch by one year by starring in Cheyenne as the title character Cheyenne Brodie.
The 1950’s and 1960’s were the time of the western. Not only were there more wild west themed programs on the small box than you could throw an empty pistol at, but the big screen featured a lot of cowboy hat wearing, gun slinging heroes as well, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, et al all rode for the brand as it were. All of the actors, on big screen or small, were of a type; tall, rugged, except for Murphy who was tough, baby-faced and a real life war-hero, and all of them fit into the western verse very well.
It has been said that in back in that time period in Hollywood that the western seemed to be invented for those lead actors who suddenly found themselves with crows feet and other facial wrinkles. They were older and that bit more rugged looking. The western on the big screen was almost tailor made for actors who were reaching their “sell by date.” The medium allowed stars like Gary Cooper to add years onto their careers and gave younger male performers, like James Garner or Clint Eastwood, a way in.
James Garner, who was reported dead at 86 on Saturday June 19, was one of the last stars of the golden age of the TV western and those halcyon days of spurs and multiple gunfights has lost yet another icon. Of all those young men who began their careers riding a horse, wearing chaps or a badge, playing cards or being drummed out of the cavalry only one remains. Clint Eastwood, aka Rowdy Yates back in the day, looks like the last western star standing.
Many publications are recounting how Garner was a war hero with two purple hearts, but to hear James tell it, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was wounded by “friendly fire.” More than his military record was the fact that the actor was a “man’s man” one who loved race car driving and golf. He was also married to the same woman until the day he died, July 19, 2014; the ladies name, Lois Fleishman Clarke.
Only certain fans of Garner’s, those of a certain age, will automatically think of him as Bret Maverick. Younger followers of the actor’s career will think of him as Jim Rockford. Both characters were similar in certain ways. Both men had to work at winning a fist fight, for example and neither Jim nor Bret thought that they were the toughest bull in the barn. Jim Rockford especially, showed that it hurt to be punched and was equally painful to hit someone else in the face with a bare fist.
Garner himself knew just how much being punched hurt when he was assaulted by an irate motorist in 1980. The actor was 51 at the time and the assailant grabbed James through his car window and hit his head and face repeatedly. Then he dragged the actor out of his car and kicked him while he was on the ground. At the time Garner said that his attacker was getting tired and that if he had hung around long enough that he, James, would have “beat the hell, out of him.” Luckily, despite the savagery of the attack, Garner was not seriously hurt.
The award-winning actor’s worst injuries were from years of doing his own stunts. As an actor, Garner was a master at portraying an “everyman” type character who was smarter than the average man when given the chance. His trademark was to be a sort of “non-hero” hero. Another trademark, one that he shared with another cowboy star, John Wayne, was a classic “angry look.” Like Duke Wayne, Garner had a special “look” that telegraphed plainly that his character was annoyed and James used it to great comic effect.
James Garner being pronounced dead at 86 means that the golden age of TV westerns has lost another star. The late actor was a Korean War vet and he is one of the last actors who started his career as a contract player for a major studio, Warner Bros. He was also one of a kind. An actor that will never be replaced and has never been replicated or imitated. Take a moment to doff your stetson and mourn another great man’s, and actor’s, passing.
By Michael Smith