When I first heard the news that James Garner died last night at the age of 86 in his Brentwood, California home my heart broke a little. He was my first celebrity crush. I spent more time with an on-screen James Garner than most men in my life.
I watched him on TV from a young age as he played a handsome hunk opposite Doris Day in Move Over Darling, Boys Night Out and The Thrill Of It All, catching reruns of Maverick and glued to all six seasons of his series The Rockford Files. His sexy swagger and deep gravelly voice made me swoon. His Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley (he made more than 300!) in the late 70’s made a huge impression on me. And I distinctly remember how he made my heart flutter in Murphy’s Romance and made my heart break in The Notebook.
above: James Garner and Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance, 1985
above: James Garner in The Notebook, 2004
He was born as James Scott Bumgarner in Oklahoma and his teenage nickname was “slick”. He lost his mother when he was only 5 and he and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. He dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Merchant Marines and received 2 Purple Hearts when he was wounded twice during the Korean War. It was a non-speaking part on Broadway that led to small television roles, television commercials and eventually a contract with Warner Brothers. And the rest of his career took off from there. (To see his full filmography, visit here)
He and his only wife, Lois Clarke, met at a political rally and married only two weeks later – and they stayed married. He had two daughters: stepdaughter Kimberly, from Lois’ first marriage and Gigi Garner, who is now a producer.
above: James Garner and Wife Lois Clarke.
above: James and his daughter Gigi
To me, he exemplified a Man’s Man. A Soldier. A Cowboy. A Race Car Driver. He didn’t just play a stud on TV, he really was one. He hung out with Paul Newman, James Coburn and Steve McQueen. Admittedly, he looked great with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and he often brandished a gun in his roles. He was politically active (he helped organize Martin Luther King’s famous “March on Washington” civil rights demonstration), a humanitarian (he was a volunteer of the Save The Children organization) and a big Oakland Raiders football fan. He was also a student of the martial arts.
above: Garner during the filming of Grand Prix, 1966, which turned him onto racing
above: Garner with Steve McQueen and James Coburn
above: James Garner and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington
above: James Garner at the Bondurant Racing School
above: Portraits by Leo Fuchs taken during the filming of The Great Escape
above: James Garner and Audrey Hepburn
above: Publicity still of James Garner, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine
He was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978 and inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1990.
Over his lifetime, he survived two knee replacements, a bleeding ulcer, a stroke and quintuple bypass surgery. He was one tough cookie.
He was sexy, charming, macho and funny. Loyal, caring and talented. And he will be missed. Rest in Peace, Jim.