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.”
Another revelation for the author, from interviews with Garner’s friends and associates, was “the number of people whose lives he has enhanced through his generosity. … Something that came up again and again was how tremendously generous he is, both financially and in other ways.”
After Korea, Garner returned to L.A. and continued searching for a way to make a living that he could live with, while helping his father lay carpet.
He even went back to Norman long enough to attend a semester at the University of Oklahoma, having passed the high school equivalency test in the
service. But when bad knees prevented him from playing Sooner football, it was back to California.
He resisted suggestions from others that acting might be worth a try. After all, he had the tall, dark, handsome look down pat, but he was just too shy and introverted.
“I wouldn’t do it. I just wasn’t interested. And then, I don’t know, one day I got tired of laying carpets. And a guy offered me a job and I took it.”
The job was a nonspeaking role in the Broadway play “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” in 1954. He decided he didn’t like the stage much, but the contacts he made led to a $150-a-week contract with Warner Bros., and his first on-camera dramatic role with Clint Walker in the TV series “Cheyenne” in 1955.
Prominent big screen roles followed in “Toward the Unknown” (with William Holden) and “The Girl He Left Behind” (with Natalie Wood) before his breakthrough came in 1957, supporting Marlon Brando in Joshua Logan’s “Sayonara.”
It was during that filming in Japan that the studio tapped him to star in one of its new Western TV series — “Maverick.”
Many actors had tested for the role, but Garner says he was picked “because I was under contract to them. And I was cheap.”
Garner’s naturally easygoing affability and smooth, wry delivery of witty dialogue caught on with viewers, the show became Warner’s biggest TV hit, and Bret Maverick was the most famous card-playing cowpoke in America by the end of the ’57-’58 season.
But he wasn’t exactly in the chips. He was getting a paltry $500 a week.
“People said, ‘Well, what’re you going to do? They’re really rippin’ you off’ … I said, ‘They’re not going to make me unhappy. We’ve got the number one show on the air … These people aren’t stupid.’ I didn’t think they were, but they were.”
At great risk to his career, Garner sued Warner Bros. to get out of his contract, and won. He left the show and the studio after the third season, and the series lasted another two years without him.
But that didn’t matter to Garner, who was one of the first TV stars (then considered second-class citizens in the Hollywood community) to make a successful transition to feature films, along with people such as Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and his good friend, Clint Eastwood.
Garner would later work with all three, first with McQueen and Bronson in the 1963 war classic “The Great Escape” and much later with Eastwood in 2000′s “Space Cowboys.”
McQueen and Garner became neighbors in the ’60s and socialized a bit, both sharing a love for auto racing. What Garner didn’t know for many years was that McQueen harbored keen professional and personal jealousies toward him.
“I was never aware of it until we were racing in Baja, and he was in a different category than I was, so we weren’t really competitors,” Garner recalled in the 2001 interview. “And yet, every place he got to he said, ‘Where’s Garner? Where’s Garner? How far ahead is he?’ You know, he tore up a race car trying to catch me.
“Then Neile, his wife at the time, said, ‘He’s always been jealous of tall, dark men.’”
Garner’s many other big-screen successes include “The Children’s Hour” (with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine), “The Thrill of it All,” “Move Over Darling” (both with Doris Day), “The Americanization of Emily” (with Julie Andrews), “Grand Prix” (with Eva Marie Saint), “Support Your Local Sheriff” (with Joan Hackett), “Skin Game” (with Louis Gossett Jr.), “Victor Victoria” (with Julie Andrews) and “Murphy’s Romance” (with Sally Field), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
At the same time, Garner continued to ply his trade on television with TV movies and series, most notably as the amiable, tongue-in-cheek, ex-con detective of “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980) which led to yet another lawsuit over money. Universal ended up settling out of court, paying Garner an undisclosed amount in withheld profits and punitive damages.
Legally, Garner can’t reveal the size of the settlement, but for weeks afterward his wife Lois “had to keep telling me to wipe the grin off my face,” he writes in his memoir.
“One of the things that’s really remarkable about my dad is that there are very few actors in Hollywood or anywhere that have been able to go from film to TV, back to film, back to TV” without diminishing his A-list stature, daughter Gigi Garner said in another recent phone interview.
“He’s a very rare bird in that area,” she said, adding that she and her father are planning to produce a couple of film projects together through their Cherokee Productions company.
James and Lois Garner, married 55 years, also raised another daughter, Kimberly, from Lois’ first marriage.
Garner said in an email that “The Notebook” (2004) is one of his three favorites of his own films “because it was about everlasting love. I believe in everlasting love.”
His other favorites: “‘My Name is Bill W.’ (1989) because over the years people have told me that seeing the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous had helped them. ‘The Americanization of Emily’ (1964), because it was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky and because it was about the futility of war.”
His least favorites: “‘Mister Buddwing’ (1966), the worst picture that I ever made, and ‘A Man Called Sledge.’ Sludge.”
Not many blemishes on his own assessment of his lengthy and remarkable career.
At 84, Garner’s health history has included chronic knee problems that required numerous operations, quintuple bypass surgery in 1988 and a stroke in 2008. And all of those stunts were bound to have left some damage as well, not to mention sore knuckles from decking the occasional jerk, such as the producer who was stealing story ideas from “The Rockford Files,” and “A Man Could Get Killed” costar Anthony Franciosa for bullying the stunt crew.
But Winokur said don’t write Garner off just yet.
“He’s hangin’ in there,” the author said. “He’s had some issues from which he’s recovered and he’s in good spirits. The problem is his mobility. As you can imagine, he’s got arthritis in about every place you can have it, and that puts a hitch in his get-along. He’s had one stroke, four years ago in May which really didn’t leave him with any permanent damage … No plans at the moment, but I would not count him out. I mean he loves to work and he’s so great. I wouldn’t want to bet against him.”
The work ethic dates back to that rough and tumble Oklahoma boyhood, when Garner had to fend for himself. It’s served him well, and he’s paid his home state back by returning for numerous personal appearances and benefits over the years.
In 2003, he donated $500,000 to endow the James Garner Chair in the School of Drama at the University of Oklahoma. It was the first endowed chair in the drama school’s history.
And he’s gotten love in return.
In 1990, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
In 1995, Garner received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Oklahoma.
In 2006, the City of Norman erected a 10-foot, bronze statue of Garner as Bret Maverick, which stands across from the old Sooner Theatre, where Garner used to sit through Saturday matinees idolizing his heroes, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Cagney, and Henry Fonda, whom Garner saw in “The Grapes of Wrath” when he was 12 or 13.
In his memoir, he says he was amazed at the time that they had actually made a movie about people like him, but he didn’t like the term “Okie.” He still doesn’t. Thinks it’s derogatory.
What has being from Oklahoma meant to him?
“Everything!” he said in his email. “I’m so proud of it, I almost start conversations, ‘Hi, I’m Jim from Oklahoma.’ … Oklahoma is friendly and full of nice people.”