Monday, 21 July 2014

James Garner: Rockford Files star dies aged 86

James Garner, star of the hit US TV series The Rockford Files, Maverick and films including The Great Escape (1963), has died aged 86.

Garner had suffered ill health since a severe stroke in 2008.

"Mr Garner died of natural causes," the West LA Division of the Los Angeles Police Department told the BBC, adding he died on Saturday and his body has been released to his family.

Garner was perhaps best known for playing the laconic private investigator Jim Rockford.

He won an Emmy for the role in 1977 and starred in 122 episodes of the hugely successful show from 1974 to 1980. He returned to it in the 1990s with eight Rockford Files TV movies.

Tom Selleck, who guest starred in Garner's series The Rockford Files, said: "Jim was a mentor to me and a friend, and I will miss him."

Another role, as the poker playing Bret Maverick in the Western comedy, was also a hit with TV viewers, running for 60 episodes from 1957 to 1962. It ran again for another 18 episodes from 1981 to 1982.

Richard Natale of Variety said that the role of the laid-back, work-shy Maverick fitted "his wry personality like a glove". However he left the show following a legal dispute over his salary with Warner Bros, which he won.

The TV show was later made into a film in 1992 starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, but also starred Garner – this time on the right side of the law, as Marshal Zane Cooper.

In the iconic World War Two film The Great Escape, Garner played flight lieutenant Robert Hendley, an American in the RAF, alongside Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence.

The film depicted the daring escape by prisoners of war from the German Stalag Luft III camp through a 336ft (102m) long tunnel. Only three reached safety and of the 73 recaptured, 50 were shot.

Hendley's role in the film was as the 'scrounger' who managed to get hold of identity cards, clothes and a camera. Garner later said that he had based this role on his real-life experiences – also as a 'scrounger' – during the Korean War with the US Army.

He also had success with films including Grand Prix (1966), a fictional account of the Formula One season featuring actual racing footage.

The actor went on to receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the romantic comedy Murphy's Romance (1986), co-starring Sally Field, in which he played a small town pharmacist.

"There are few people on this planet I have adored as much as Jimmy Garner," Field added.

"I cherish every moment I spent with him and relive them over and over in my head. He was a diamond.''

Other leading ladies included Doris Day, who he starred with in the screwball comedy Move over Darling (1963), and Julie Andrews, his co-star in gender bending comedy Victor Victoria (1982).

In an interview on US TV in 2002, he told Charlie Rose: "John [Sturges, Great Escape's director] was a great director and editor and he got the most out of his actors. I don't know how he did that, I think it was just a pat on the back and that sort of thing."

He also admitted that he was "always nervous" when acting, adding: "Keeps me on my toes. I've never been that confident, I don't have the background in acting.

"Some people do, they went to all these classes. A lot of people say you have to have this foundation, you have to have all the great teachers and all the great theory. I don't think so.

"When I was 25 when I first started acting I'd been around the world a little bit. I'd travelled in a lot of different societies. I felt I knew as much as any of these actors who'd been to acting school."

Boasting an easy charm, rugged good looks and a flexible ability to inhabit comedy and drama, Garner delivered masculinity while merrily able to undercut it to supreme effect. Born James Scott Baumgarner in Oklahoma in 1928, he lost his mother when he was just four. Dropping out of high school at 16, Garner joined the merchant marine navy, only to suffer from chronic sea sickness, forcing him to quit and move to Los Angeles to live with his father. He briefly went back to school at Hollywood High and scored a swimsuit-modelling job. But further work in front of a camera would have to wait, as he spent a period drifting through odd jobs, and was then drafted into the army for the Korean War, where he was wounded twice while serving in the infantry.

He was injured in 1951 but he had to wait until 1983 to receive his medal, the Purple Heart.

Acting began for Garner when he landed a nonspeaking role in the 1954 Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It starred the eminent Henry Fonda, who was closely studied by his young cast member.

He went on to win a role in Towards The Unknown (1956), about early supersonic flight experiments.

Garner went on to be nominated for nine Golden Globes for shows including The Rockford Files in 1980 and Maverick in 1982, having won in 1958 for most promising newcomer.

He also won a further two for TV series Decoration Day (1991) and Barbarians At The Gate (1994).

He also starred with Sandra Bullock and Ellen Burstyn in mother-daughter drama Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). From 2003 to 2005 he was in 45 episodes of US comedy 8 Simple Rules.

In 2005 the veteran star was given a Screen Actor's Guild lifetime achievement award.

He’s survived by his wife Lois Clarke, who he met in 1956 and married two weeks later, his daughter Greta and stepdaughter Kimberly. He was a one of a kind and our thoughts are with his family.

Our thoughts are with his friends and family.

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