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Oklahoma native James Garner dies

by Brandy McDonnell Modified: July 20, 2014 at 4:44 pm •  Published: July 20, 2014

James Garner reportedly has died. AP file
James Garner reportedly has died. AP file

Oscar-nominated actor and Oklahoma native James Garner has reportedly died at the age of 86.

He was found dead of natural causes at his home in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles Saturday evening, Los Angeles police officer Alonzo Iniquez told the Associated Press early Sunday. Police responded to a call around 8 p.m. PDT and confirmed Garner’s identity from family members.

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.

>>Read our in-depth package on James Garner's life and connection to Oklahoma.

James Garner as Jim Rockford in the 1970s television series "The Rockford Files."
James Garner as Jim Rockford in the 1970s television series "The Rockford Files."

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, until his stroke.

“He’s in his 80s, but he’s OK. He doesn’t have any impairments,” his daughter Gigi Garner told me in a 2010 interview. “But he’s tough, you see. They don’t make ‘em 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.

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 $150-a-week 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.

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.

James Garner with daughter Gigi on the set of the 1971-'72 NBC TV series "Nichols."
PHOTO PROVIDED <strong></strong>
James Garner with daughter Gigi on the set of the 1971-'72 NBC TV series "Nichols." PHOTO PROVIDED

“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, Gigi Garner told The Oklahoman in 2012.

“He’s a very rare bird in that area,” she said, adding that she and her father were 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 told The Oklahoman in a 2012 email that “The Notebook” (2004) was 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.”

He continued acting in both TV and movies until well into his 70s, mixing up films like “Space Cowboys” (2000), “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” (2002) and “The Ultimate Gift” (2006) with stints on series like “8 Simples Rules” and “Chicago Hope.”

In 2006, Garner was on hand when a heroic-size bronze statue of himself as a young Maverick was dedicated in his hometown.

“My dad was given an honorary doctorate at OU, and he funded the chair the current drama dean is in,” Gigi Garner told me in our 2010 interview. “My dad feels like a huge, huge piece of his heart is connected to Oklahoma. … He’s extremely loyal.”


Video: James Garner is still an Oklahoma "Maverick" In-depth: Hometown Maverick
by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1...
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