Skip to main content

Famed actor James Garner dies at 86

By Todd Leopold, CNN
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
  • James Garner died of natural causes on Saturday, police say
  • The actor is best known for his roles in "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files"
  • He moved easily between film and TV before it became the norm
  • Garner took on acting roles well into his 80s

(CNN) -- James Garner, the understated, wisecracking everyman actor who enjoyed multigenerational success on both the small and big screens, has died. He was 86.

Police, who were called to his residence Saturday night in Los Angeles, say he died of natural causes.

Garner starred in hit TV series almost 20 years apart -- "Maverick" in the late 1950s and "The Rockford Files" in the 1970s.

He also had a notable film career, starring in such classics as "Sayonara" (1957), "The Great Escape" (1963), "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), "Grand Prix" (1966) and "Victor/Victoria" (1982), as well as the TV movies "My Name Is Bill W." (1989) and "Barbarians at the Gate" (1993). More recent films included "Space Cowboys" (2000) and "The Notebook" (2004).

He was fiercely independent, challenging the studios on both "Maverick" and "Rockford" when he felt he wasn't being treated fairly. He sued studios twice and won both times.

Actor James Garner poses at a portrait session at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, on January 31, 2005. Garner died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 19, police say.
Actor James Garner poses at a portrait session at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, on January 31, 2005. Garner died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 19, police say.
Actor James Garner dies at 86
James Garner photo gallery James Garner photo gallery
Click through to see people who died in 2014. Click through to see people who died in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

"The industry is like it always has been. It's a bunch of greedy people," he told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.

Garner was given a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2004. The actors' union head issued a statement about his death Sunday.

"James Garner was the definition of the smooth, dashing leading man, but his talents were so much more than skin deep," SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard said. "He was a hard worker who dedicated himself wholly to whatever he set out to accomplish, whether it was serving his country or performing for the camera."

A versatile star

He was a valued and convincing pitchman -- in his 1970s and '80s commercials for Polaroid cameras, he had such good rapport with co-star Mariette Hartley that viewers were convinced they were married -- and was nominated for a slew of awards, including Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG Awards and an Oscar (for 1985's "Murphy's Romance"). His performance in "The Rockford Files" won him an Emmy.

He could do serious. His performance in the TV movie "My Name Is Bill W." -- about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous -- was straightforward and uncompromising. He could also show real heartbreak, whether it was cradling fellow escapee Donald Pleasance in "The Great Escape" or talking with Gena Rowlands in "The Notebook."

But he was rarely one to blow his own horn.

"I got into the business to put a roof over my head," he once said. "I wasn't looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working."

Humble beginnings

James Scott Bumgarner was born April 7, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother died when he was 5 and his father remarried a year later. Garner didn't get along with his stepmother and, after a particularly vicious argument, left home at 14. His father, who divorced his stepmother, eventually moved to Los Angeles. At 16, Garner followed, attending Hollywood High School and finding a job as a swimsuit model.

"I made 25 bucks an hour!" he told People magazine. "That's why I quit school. I was making more money than the teachers. I never finished the ninth grade."

After joining the Merchant Marine and the National Guard, he served in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Purple Heart. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles and took up acting -- for the same reason he started modeling, he told the L.A. Times.

"What was I qualified to do to make a living? Nothing," he said. "You don't need qualifications as an actor or a politician. And I didn't want to be a politician."

A small part in Broadway's "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" led to a contract with Warner Bros., which cast him in both TV and movie roles. After a performance as a Marine captain in "Sayonara," he took the lead role in a new TV series, "Maverick," which was to make his reputation in many ways.

Leaving his mark

In 1957, "Maverick" was, well, a maverick: a Western filled with comedy, which often parodied other TV Westerns. As a show on ABC, then the third-ranked of the three broadcast networks, it wasn't expected to do well against competitors "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Steve Allen Show." But it won its Sunday-night time slot and became one of the hottest programs on television. In turn, Garner -- who played Bret Maverick, a roving card player -- became one of the medium's biggest stars.

But Garner became dissatisfied with the show's grind and being treated like "ham in a smokehouse," as he put it. In 1960 he sued producer Warner Bros. for breach of contract. He won the case and left the show, which replaced him first with Roger Moore (as Beau Maverick) and then Robert Colbert (as Brent) but soon left the air entirely.

Garner, however, was on the verge of movie stardom. Director William Wyler cast him in the film version of Lillian Hellman's play "The Children's Hour" as a sympathetic doctor; two years later Garner starred as Lt. Bob "The Scrounger" Hendley in "The Great Escape," one of the great war movies.

He remembered star Steve McQueen as being rebellious. "Steven would drive that motorcycle with the swastikas on it all over Munich. People would yell. They didn't think that was too good, and I didn't either," Garner told People in 1998.

But the two were close, he added -- in fact, McQueen was his next-door neighbor in Los Angeles. "He looked at me as an older brother," he told the magazine.

Garner followed "Escape" with the film he ranked as his favorite, "The Americanization of Emily." The film, which had a script by Paddy Cheyefsky ("Marty," "Network"), was about a self-described "coward" Navy officer who romances an Englishwoman (Julie Andrews) and -- against his will -- takes part in the D-Day invasion. "Emily" was nominated for two Oscars and helped make Andrews, a famed stage actress whose film "Mary Poppins" was released earlier that year, a star.

His 1966 film, the John Frankenheimer-directed "Grand Prix," gave him another passion -- auto racing. He founded an auto-racing team and drove the pace car in the Indianapolis 500 three times. It was an avocation he shared with a friend, Paul Newman. Garner was also a good golfer and an avowed fan of his home state school, the University of Oklahoma, where he endowed a chair at the college's drama school.

Garner's movie career languished in the late '60s, though he had a mild hit with "Support Your Local Sheriff!" (1969), and he returned to television in the 1970s. After the short-lived "Nichols" he took the role as Jim Rockford in "The Rockford Files," which was as much an anti-detective series as "Maverick" was an anti-Western. (Both shows were produced by Roy Huggins, who also created "77 Sunset Strip" and "The Fugitive.")

Garner's Jim Rockford may have carried a gun, but he did so rarely (he didn't have a permit anyway) and he would much rather talk than shoot. Once imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, the Pontiac Firebird-driving detective lived in a dilapidated trailer on the Malibu coast. His friends included a grumpy LAPD detective, a former cellmate, a disbarred lawyer and his father, a retired trucker.

Aging amid stardom

Garner did many of his own stunts on "Rockford," and they took a toll, he told People in 1994.

"The work on the show had worn me down to a nub," he said. Over the course of the series, he broke bones, strained muscles and was even treated for depression. "I was sick and tired of it all." Garner also had quintuple bypass surgery in 1988 and had a stroke in 2008.

He left "Rockford" in 1980, partly because of his ailments and partly because of contractual problems with the studio, which eventually led to his lawsuit. After it was settled, he returned to the role for a series of TV movies in the '90s.

But "Rockford" cemented Garner's status on Hollywood's A-list. He made a number of TV and theatrical movies in the '80s, some duds -- "Tank" (1984) and "Sunset" (1988) -- and some successful: He earned praise for his performance in "Victor/Victoria" and an Oscar nomination for "Murphy's Romance."

He worked steadily in the 2000s, with notable performances in TV's "Barbarians at the Gate," the film version of "Maverick," the miniseries "Streets of Laredo" and the theatrical film "The Notebook." He also returned to series television, joining the cast of "8 Simple Rules" after the death of John Ritter.

The work in front of a live audience intimidated him, he said, despite his experience.

"I started in theater, and that's what scared me to death," he told CNN's Larry King in 2004.

Actor, husband, activist

Garner famously had one of Hollywood's longest-lasting marriages. He married Lois Clarke in 1956 after a brief courtship; they were still married at Garner's death, 58 years later.

"I just let my wife get away with murder," he joked to The Los Angeles Times in 1994.

His co-stars were equally smitten with Garner.

"Jim is funny and dear, and he laughs at my jokes," Sally Field told People in 1985, before the release of "Murphy's Romance." "That's what makes Jim sexy; it doesn't change with years."

Garner was also a longtime political activist. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and frequently donated to Democratic candidates and liberal causes.

But he'll likely be best remembered for a James Garner persona that seemed inseparable from the real-life man: professional, unruffled, witty and never too impressed with himself.

"I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor," he told People in 2005. "His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't (or) looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote."

He is survived by his wife and their two daughters, Kim and Gigi.

Garner: 'Like, Zen, man'

People we've lost in 2014

Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Joe Cocker, the British blues-rock singer whose raspy voice brought plaintive soul to such hits as "You Are So Beautiful," has died at 70.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2326 GMT (0726 HKT)
The creator of "Clifford the Big Red Dog," has died, according to his publisher, Scholastic.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0259 GMT (1059 HKT)
Legendary photographer Michel du Cille, a 26-year veteran of The Washington Post, unexpectedly died while on assignment in Liberia.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Mary Ann Mobley, who was the first Mississippian to be crowned Miss America and then went on to a successful movie career, has died at 77.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 2135 GMT (0535 HKT)
Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley on the 1960s TV show "The Addams Family," has died at 59.
December 4, 2014 -- Updated 0051 GMT (0851 HKT)
Ian McLagan, the Faces keyboardist who also played on records by artists like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, has died at 69.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 0027 GMT (0827 HKT)
American saxophonist Bobby Keys, who for years toured and recorded with the Rolling Stones, has died.
November 29, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Roberto Gomez Bolanos gained fame as a comedian, but he was also a writer, actor, screenwriter, songwriter, film director and TV producer.
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Ryan Knight, a cast member on MTV's "Real World: New Orleans," has died at age 28.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
P.D. James, the British novelist renowned for her crime novels featuring detective Adam Dalgliesh as well as such works as "The Children of Men," has died at age 94.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 2038 GMT (0438 HKT)
A file picture taken on August 20, 2001 shows Lebanese popular singer Sabah displaying her medal after being honored at the opening of the 7th Cairo International Song festival in Cairo. Famed Lebanese singer and actress Sabah, whose seven-decade career made her one of the Arab world's best-known entertainers, died on November 26, 2014 at the age of 87, state media announced.
Lebanese singer and actress Sabah, died in Beirut. She was 87.
November 23, 2014 -- Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT)
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry has died at age 78.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Diem Brown, the MTV reality star whose fight against cancer was an inspiration to many, lost that long battle on Friday. She was 32.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2340 GMT (0740 HKT)
Mike Nichols, the award-winning director and pioneering comedian who was one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award, has died at 83.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
Jimmy Ruffin, silky-voiced singer of the Motown classic "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," died in Las Vegas at 78.
November 16, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Prolific television producer Glen Larson passed away at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer. He produced many popular shows, including "Knight Rider" and "Battlestar Galactica."
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Diem Brown, the MTV reality star whose fight against cancer was an inspiration to many, lost that long battle at the age of 32.