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James Garner: 1928-2014
July 20, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

James Garner, whose death at age 86 was just announced, was a great actor who made acting look easy. But he leaves behind two iconic TV series roles, a handful of exceptional telemovies, and one of the most impressive resumes in TV history…

There’s so much credit to heap upon the easy-going, fiercely independent, reliably entertaining Garner, it’s difficult to know where to start. Except that you almost have to start with his major contribution to television, decades before most of the medium caught up to what he was doing: playing the roles of characters who were more than human, and less than hero, while still commanding enough interest and charisma to occupy the center of a weekly TV series.

 His portrayal of Bret Maverick, one of the gambling, freewheeling brothers in the ABC series Maverick, quickly changed the tone of that show from a fairly standard Western to a playful exercise in confounding genre conventions. Garner stayed with the show for only three seasons, starting in 1957, but his contributions were invaluable. In the most classic Maverick of all, an episode called “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres” from 1958, Garner’s Bret was fleeced by an unscrupulous banker, then spent the rest of the episode planning and exacting his revenge – while never seeming to leave his appointed post across the street from the bank, seated in a rocking chair and whittling.

Garner played a variation on the same endearing character – a man who was brave and noble only when he had to be – in his most famous role of all, as Jim Rockford, the private-eye anti-hero of NBC’s The Rockford Files. Garner starred in The Rockford Files from 1974 to 1980, and reprised the role in a series of telemovies in the 1990s. (That same decade, he also appeared in the big-screen Maverick movie.)

Every obituary will give Garner top-billing credit for those two series, as well as for such significant big-screen, early-career roles as 1963’s The Great Escape and 1964’s The Americanization of Emily. But where Garner may be least appreciated is in his very longevity as a TV series lead.

James Garner starred in TV series in five different decades: Cheyenne in the Fifties, Maverick into the Sixties, The Rockford Files and Nichols in the Seventies, the sequel Bret Maverick in the Eighties, and, in the 2000s, the drama Chicago Hope and the sitcom 8 Simple Rules.

And while Garner didn’t star in any weekly series in the 1990s, he did some of his very best work on TV in that decade, including Larry Gelbart’s brilliant HBO docudrama Barbarians at the Gate (at right). His other telemovie triumphs included two co-starring James Woods: 1986’s Promise and 1989’s My Name is Bill W.

My TV critic friends and I, whiling away the few down hours on press tour, would tap our communal knowledge trying to answer some especially esoteric television questions. One of them was this: Which actor or actress can claim to have starred in TV series in more different decades than any other?

Garner has five. So far as I can tell, and remember, that puts him one ahead of Bill Cosby (who is about to add another decade with a proposed series next fall), ties him with Bob Newhart, and puts him only one behind the grand dame of them all, Betty White, who has starred on TV in every decade but one since, and including, the 1950s.

In other words, James Garner was one of the most durable, as well as one of the most likable, television actors of all time. Revisit any of his old series, and you’ll instantly be reminded why.

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Of all the actors I can think of, only Cary Grant had the same combination of talent, charm and looks as Garner. I may have been one of the few who watched every episode of Nichols, and I still think it was one of the best shows ever on TV. Now if his estate would only release it on DVD.
Like Cary Grant, Garner will be well known as long as people continue to watch classic films and tv shows.
Aug 8, 2014   |  Reply
One of the staples of tv and the big screen. His attractiveness and manly good looks never faltered through the years. I had put off watching The Notebook, but finally saw it a few weeks ago; he and Gena Rowlands were perfect together. He had lost none of his appeal, and was as charming and loving as ever. I consider James Garner one of the dependables; no matter what the venue, it was better for his having been involved in it. Always fun to watch, and as the old saying goes, easy on the eyes!
Jul 20, 2014   |  Reply
Well said! He is and will always be one of my mom's favorite actors. We saw The Notebook in a theater because I had just discovered and wanted to see Ryan Gosling but to this day when others on TV and off talk about the movie and the relationship between Gosling and McAdams my mom points out that James Garner was the real star of the film making it worth watching whenever it is on.
Jul 20, 2014
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