James Garner of The Rockford Files died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 86. James Garner, known for his role as Jim Rockford, a private investigator in the long-running six-season TV series, Rockford Files. Rockford was a private eye with a shady past, spending time in jail for a crime he did not commit. He had bill collectors on his heels, never seemed to get enough sleep and always wore rumpled suits, as though he could not afford dry cleaning bills. His Jim Rockford character fit the 70s perfectly. The show was action-packed, full of car chases and fights, but viewers tuned in for something more. They could not wait for the next episode; they were attracted to the dialogue, the rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth between him and his dad, Rocky, or his friend Angel, a con man. Dennis Becker, a police detective, and Beth Davenport, his good-looking lawyer were always mixed up in the action somehow. Rockford almost always got his man but what attracted viewers to him was that he did not appear to be bigger than life, like a lot of other TV heroes. He was able to give a punch, but he was always able to take one too. If something didn’t go his way, he always came back smiling; that was part of his oh-well attitude. Rockford couldn’t wait to brush off the dust and go fishing, hoping to have a nice long weekend, which almost never happened.
James Garner was born April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma; his real name was James Scott Bumgarner. He came from a humble family; his dad was a carpet layer. At the age of 16, in 1944, he dropped out of school and joined the Merchant Marines. During the Korean War, he was wounded twice in action and received two Purple Hearts. In 1954, a friend got him a non-speaking role in a Broadway play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Even though he played a very small part in this play, it opened the door for James Garner. Shortly after that, he played a few small television roles and made a few commercials. In 1956, he played in his first real movie, The Girl He Left Behind. Garner’s career began to take off.
In 1957, he caught his first big break, co-starring in the TV western, Maverick. Originally the show was about the Maverick brothers, Bart and Bret, played by Garner. The show quickly turned into the Bret Maverick show due to Garner’s wit and charm. Maverick was very successful for Garner, but he left the show in 1960 over a money issue. James Garner was very successful in The Rockford Files, but his death on Saturday at the age of 86 is bound to be a shock to his Maverick fans as well.
Garner returned to films in the 60s, but he always played characters very similar to Bret Maverick. He starred in some great movies as The Great Escape in 1963, The Americanization of Emily in 1964 and Grand Prix in 1966. Garner won an Emmy in 1977 for his role in The Rockford Files. In 1985, he played Murphy in Murphy’s Romance; his character was not a typical Garner-like character and for that he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. In the 90s, his role in a TV movie, Barbarians at the Gate, received fantastic reviews. In 1994, he starred in a remake of Maverick. In 2000, he played Tank Sullivan in Space Cowboys, along with other film greats, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. Television and movie fans will remember James Garner for the wonderful person and actor that he was; his death on Saturday at age 86 will certainly be remembered by Maverick and Rockford File fans.
By Dennis De Rose