The death of actor James Garner is a shock and while many are remembering his legacy as the star of Maverick and The Rockford Files, there is not much talk about his early years. Like his famous characters, Garner had an early life that was just as interesting and almost as troubling, which was actually very common for many actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood. This troubling early life began practically from birth.
James Garner was born under the name James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma. He was the youngest of three sons to parents Mildred Bumgarner and carpet layer Weldon Warren “Bill” Bumgarner. The first hardship the young boy went through was living through the Great Depression Dust-bowl era. Then, at age four his mother passed away.
Eventually he and his brothers, Charles and Jack, were abandoned by their father and were left in the care of relatives. When Bill remarried he reunited with his boys, but they did not adjust well to their new family life. The new stepmom was abusive to the boys, physically and vocally, which would eventually lead to divorce.
When his father made the move to Los Angeles, California, James Garner remained in Oklahoma and soon dropped out of school. When he was sixteen years old close to the end of World War II, he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marines. After the war ended, he relocated to California with his father, where he had a brief stay at Hollywood High School. Garner dropped out again in order to take a job as a model for the Janzen bathing suits company. Garner made this choice because as a model he was earning $25 an hour, which, according to him, was more than what his teachers were earning.
In 1950, the Korean War was going on and Garner became the first person in Oklahoma to be drafted into the United States Army. During his service, Garner suffered two injuries and received Purple Hearts for both. Upon his return stateside, James Garner’s fame in the early years was just on the horizon.
When he returned, he was in need of a new job. He was approached by a friend who was a talent agent, and got talked into taking on a non-speaking role in a Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. When Garner was not doing his scenes in the play, he would help his fellow actors run over their lines during rehearsals. It was through this process that Garner learned the craft of acting by watching the show’s lead actor, Henry Fonda. Fonda, in a sense, became his acting coach. However, unlike most actors, he viewed acting as a way to earn a living and not as art.
When Court Martial started its run, Garner got noticed by Warner Bros. Studios, and was offered a film contract in 1956. Very soon he was getting several supporting roles, such as Sayonara with the late Marlon Brando in 1957. At the same time, Warner Bros. began crediting him as “James Garner,” instead of Bumgarner.
The actor finally received his big break in 1957 when he was offered the co-starring role in the Western television series Maverick. Originally, the series was intended to have the focus on both the lead gunslingers, Garner’s Bret Maverick, and his brother Bart, portrayed by Jack Kelly. Very quickly, however, the series became the Bret Maverick Show.
The series ended its run in 1960, and for the next decade, Garner continued to act in films. In 1974, Maverick creator Roy Huggins decided to do a somewhat modern-day revival of the Bret Maverick character. That same year, James Garner returned to television in the series The Rockford Files, where he portrayed private investigator Jim Rockford. Once again, viewers were entranced by Garner’s character and the series ran until 1980.
Since then, the actor made countless appearances in both movies and television, including the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules and The Notebook in 2004. On July 19, 2014, he passed away at the age of 86. Garner had one of the longest acting careers in Hollywood and received a number of lifetime achievement awards. Since he gained fame in the early years playing an anti-hero, James Garner left an incredible legacy in the entertainment industry.
By Andrew Cerecedes