James Garner: Hometown 'Maverick' still embraces humble Norman beginnings
BY GENE TRIPLETT
He learned to drive on the bumpy back roads of Cleveland County when he was a high-spirited kid of 10, and by the time he was 50 he was doing “reverse 180s” on the streets of Hollywood in a Sierra Gold 1978 Pontiac Firebird.
That’s a trick driving maneuver where “you’re going straight in reverse at about 35 miles an hour, you come off the gas pedal, go hard left, and pull on the emergency brake. That locks
the wheels and throws the front end around. Then you release everything, hit the gas, and off you go in the opposite direction,” James Garner explains in his memoir, “The Garner Files.”
The stunt — seen fairly regularly on the hit 1970s detective series “The Rockford Files” — was performed by Garner himself.
The Norman-born film star seldom used stuntmen, from his early, star-making stint as an itinerant frontier gambler on the ’50s TV sensation “Maverick,” through a successful acting career on both the small and big screens that’s spanned five decades.
But he’s never forgotten his Oklahoma roots, and in a recent email interview with The Oklahoman he said his fondest memories of his home state stem from “growing up in Norman, where you’d walk down the street and know half the people you saw.”
“Population 5,” Garner writes in his memoir. “Dad, mom, my two brothers, and me. It was a combination hardware store-mail drop-service station on an old country road. Store in the
front and two bedrooms and a kitchen in the back, and that was it. We didn’t have indoor plumbing.”
His father, Weldon “Bill” Bumgarner, was of European ancestry, and his mother, Mildred Meek Bumgarner, was half Cherokee. She died when Garner was 4, and he and his brothers were split up and sent to live with relatives until his father eventually remarried.
A violently abusive stepmother nicknamed “Red” and being bounced from home to home didn’t make for easy life as a kid.
“I might have had some bad times when I was a kid but, you know, everybody does,” Garner said in a 2001 interview with The Oklahoman. “You just live with it … I think I had some fun times in Norman High. And I did a lot of working when I was a kid. I had to work a lot.”
In fact, when his father finally split with Red and took off for California, Garner was on his own and supporting himself at 14.
But he took his fun from high school sports, excelling in football, basketball, shot put, discus and track. When basketball season ended, Garner usually left or was expelled from the halls of education, which was all right with him because he didn’t care to play baseball.
Where he did love to play was behind the wheel of a hot automobile, a passion that hooked him early.
“That was the big deal — everybody get a car and chase each other.”
Garner managed to steer clear of trouble with the law, but he indulged in his share of mischief, pulling one particular prank that earned him the nickname “Slick.”
“A bunch of us were hanging out in front of Woolworth’s in Norman,” Garner recalled in the recent email interview. “There was a row of vending machines and just to show off, I said, ‘I bet I could steal one of those.’
“The gang dared me, so I sidled over to a peanut machine, swept it up in one arm, and kept walking with it right down Main Street. Everyone was so impressed at how smooth it was, they nicknamed me ‘Slick.’ (I didn’t know what to do with the peanut machine, so I took it back to the store.)”
When he was 16, Garner dropped out of school and joined the Merchant Marine, but that only lasted a year because of a susceptibility to seasickness.
Garner followed his father’s example and headed for Los Angeles in 1945, where he stayed with his Aunt Grace Bumgarner and briefly attended Hollywood High, then trade school while working in a filling station.
The next five years were back and forth between California and Oklahoma, during which Garner worked in chick hatcheries and the oil fields, as a truck driver and grocery clerk, and
even as a swim trunks model for Jantzen, before the Army gave him the distinction of becoming the Sooner state’s first draftee in the Korean conflict.
Author Jon Winokur (“The Portable Curmudgeon”) has known Garner for more than 20 years, but knew little of the actor’s rugged childhood or his combat experiences until the two
men began collaborating on Garner’s memoir.
“I had no idea how extensive (Garner’s Korean service) was,” Winokur said in a recent phone interview. “He was in a unit that was thrown into the front lines when the Chinese Communists crossed the 38th Parallel in 1951, and his unit was the first thing they ran into, and they were decimated. They had something like 60 percent casualties in a very short time, and (Garner) was wounded a couple of times … and got a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, which he never talked about very much.”
“Here is a wonderful photo of my father and an orphaned boy he named ‘Jocko’ that my Dad looked after during the Korean War.”
Winokur said, “He puts himself in other people’s shoes. …I guess that’s really true empathy that he has.”
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