James Garner, the Oscar-nominated actor from Norman who delighted movie and television fans for more than five decades with characters loaded with sly wit and captivating charm, died Saturday night at the age of 86.
There was no immediate word on a more specific cause of death. Garner had suffered a stroke in May 2008, just weeks after his 80th birthday.
Los Angeles police found Garner dead of natural causes about 8 p.m. PDT Saturday at his home in the Brentwood section of the city, the Associated Press reported.
Police confirmed Garner’s identity from family members.
Known for his wry and charming turns in the TV shows “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” as well as his roles in numerous movies, ranging from “The Great Escape” and “Support Your Local Sheriff!” to “The Notebook” and his Academy Award-nominated turn in “Murphy’s Romance,” Garner acted well into his 70s.
“He’s in his 80s, but he’s OK. He doesn’t have any impairments,” his daughter, Gigi Garner told The Oklahoman in a 2010 interview. “But he’s tough, you see. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928, in Norman, Garner lived his earliest days in a tiny nearby hamlet that few people have ever heard of — Denver, OK. It’s underwater now, covered by Lake Thunderbird, but in the depths of the Depression, it was a single building — a country store run by Garner’s dad, according to The Oklahoman Archives.
“Population 5,” Garner wrote in his 2011 memoir, “The Garner Files.” “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 an easy life as a kid, according to The Oklahoman Archives.
“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.”
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, according to The Oklahoman Archives.
Off to California
When he was 16 and his dad had moved to California, 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 War, where he received two Purple Hearts.
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.
Despite his tall, dark, handsome looks, he thought he was too shy and introverted.
However, he accepted 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 contract with Warner Bros., and his first on-camera dramatic role with Clint Walker in the TV series “Cheyenne” in 1955.
His true breakout came with the 1957 TV show “Maverick,” which showcased his charming affability. According to the AP, the ABC network, desperate to compete on ratings-rich Sunday night, scheduled “Maverick” against CBS’s powerhouse “The Ed Sullivan Show” and NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show.” ”Maverick” soon outpolled them both.
At a time when the networks were crowded with hard-eyed, traditional Western heroes, Bret Maverick provided a fresh breath of air.
With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, the con-artist Westerner seemed to scoff at the genre’s values, according to the AP.
After a couple of years, Garner felt the series was losing its creative edge, and he found a legal loophole to escape his contract in 1960.
His first film after “Maverick” established him as a movie actor.
It was “The Children’s Hour,” William Wyler’s remake of Lillian Hellman’s lesbian drama that co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
He followed in a successful comedy with Kim Novak, “Boys Night Out,” and then fully established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster war drama “The Great Escape” and two smash comedies with Doris Day — “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over Darling.”
He also found success with the 1969 Western comedy “Support Your Local Sheriff!,” but neither the sequel, “Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971),” nor the similarly themed TV show “Nichols” found similar success.
‘The Rockford Files’
But in 1974, he again found popularity with his wry, laidback persona, playing private detective Jim Rockford in the TV series “The Rockford Files.”
He received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the 1985 romantic drama “Murphy’s Romance,” playing a small-town druggist who befriends and later romances a divorced younger single mom, played by Sally Field.
Garner’s survivors include his wife, Lois, whom he married two weeks after they met in 1956; his stepdaughter, Kimberly; and his daughter, Greta, who is known as Gigi.
Contributing: Brandy McDonnell, Staff Writer, Gene Triplett, former entertainment editor, Juliana Keeping, staff writer, The Associated Press and MCT Information Services