Though he came to enshrine a new breed of film and TV hero, intent on winning through with wit and charm rather than his fists, James Garner insisted he had to ‘work hard at that easy-going manner you see on screen’.
But then the under-stated star of Maverick, The Great Escape and The Rockford Files never had anything easy. If there was a steely underside to one of Hollywood’s most amiable stars, it’s hardly a surprise after a tragically blighted childhood and a military record in which he was twice badly wounded in action.
One of the last survivors of a post-war generation of Hollywood leading men that included Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen, Garner died, aged 86, from apparent natural causes at his Los Angeles home at the weekend.
A lifelong smoker — he even continued after undergoing open-heart surgery in 1988 — Garner had suffered a stroke six years ago. Over a six-decade career that included more than 50 films, he had made acting look so natural and effortless.
As tributes were made to him last night — particularly in praise of his under-stated style — perhaps the veteran arts critic Clive James put it best, describing the super-articulate Garner as ‘every sane person’s favourite movie star… though tall and handsome, he was never remote: he had an air of belonging down here with us’.
Permanently harassed and frequently roughed up by villains — especially as private eye Jim Rockford — Garner played flawed heroes with whom audiences could relate.
And he was a refreshingly different kind of star off-screen, too. Shy and self-effacing, Garner was the classic plain-speaking Midwesterner who moved to Hollywood but never fell for its puffed up, underhand ways.
No other star would have reacted as Garner did when the makers of The Great Escape sacked the rebellious Steve McQueen and offered the plum role to him instead.
Convinced that the movie wouldn’t work so well without McQueen, Garner sat down with the unsuffer-able prima donna and persuaded him to stay in the film in return for the part being rewritten to make him appear more heroic.
Garner’s love life was very different from most of his libidinous co-stars, too. Married only once, he remained with Lois, his wife of 58 years, until the day he died — and never once attracted any accusations of infidelity. The couple had one child, daughter Greta.
Marriage is like the army,’ Garner once said. ‘Everyone complains, but you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.’
The actor’s previous experience of family life had hardly justified such breezy optimism.
In his 2011 autobiography — which the typically modest actor waited until he was 83 to produce — he revealed a deeply troubled childhood in Depression era Oklahoma.
His father, Weldon Bumgarner, ran a hardware store-cum-post-office on a country road. The family — including James and his two older brothers — lived in the back of the shop, which didn’t have indoor plumbing. His half-Cherokee mother died when he was four, probably during a botched abortion, Garner believed.
Then the family shop burned down and Garner’s father, a feckless alcoholic, became a carpet layer. Often arriving home drunk, he would expect his three young sons to join him in rousing sing-songs. If they refused — literally — to sing for their supper, they were beaten.
Finding it increasingly hard to cope without a mother figure, he split up his children and sent them to live with various relatives, eventually reuniting them when he remarried six years later.
His NEW wife, a redhead named Wilma, terrorised the boys. She would hit them with willow switches she had made them cut down. James was treated the worst.
‘Whenever I did anything wrong she’d put me in a dress and make everyone call me “Louise”,’ he recalled. At 14, he finally snapped after years of violence. Throwing his stepmother to the ground during one of the beatings, he began to throttle her — convinced she would kill him if he didn’t kill her first.
‘When I’m pushed, I shove,’ he wrote in his memoirs. He was pulled off his stepmother, but the violence finally forced the end of her marriage to his father, who moved to LA to find work, leaving Garner to fend for himself.