The persona he first projected in Maverick in 1957—handsome, charming, genial, a bit of a rogue, mostly a mensch—established Garner as America’s leading television actor. Born James Scott Baumgarner in Norman, Okla., in 1928, he survived an upbringing that was at best knockaround and often, at the hands of a cruel stepmother, abusive. “By the time I was 14, I’d become an independent little bastard,” he says. “Nobody was going to tell me what to do.” The attitude ebbed; the independence remained. As a young man, he played football, migrated to California, flunked out of Hollywood High, spent a semester at the University of Oklahoma, served in the Merchant Marines, won two Purple Hearts in Korea, modeled Jantzen swimsuits, and eventually fell into acting.
His big break came when he was cast in the western Maverick, a TV series that leavened the gunslinging clichés with self-mocking humor. The show brought him fame but not, to his thinking, a fair amount of money. When he got the chance, he quit the series, and spent the 1960s making movies. He had successes, including The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily, an antiwar romantic comedy with Julie Andrews, his personal favorite movie. But he also pushed himself into darker, more psychologically complex roles; he didn’t do badly, but audiences weren’t convinced, and by the end of the sixties, Garner’s star was fading.
In 1974 he returned to television in The Rockford Files. The show was great television: infused with humor, driven by well-developed characters and excellent writing, and anchored by Garner’s easygoing charm, the show week-in, week-out achieved the basic but elusive goal of being entertaining. “I’m not flashy,” Garner told Playboy in 1981, “I do humor; I don’t do comedy. Humor is much more subtle than comedy, and it takes a longer time to understand the characters. I’m much more interested in characters than flash, because flash hits quick and leaves quick, but characters go on and on.” Playing Rockford earned Garner five Emmy nominations—he won once—but it was physically debilitating. After six seasons and assorted broken ribs, herniated disks, and torn ligaments, Garner concluded that he had solved enough crimes.
He returned to film, showing his comedy chops once again opposite Andrews in the cross-dressing musical Victor Victoria, and earning an Oscar nomination for convincingly falling in love with Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance. (Many people thought he deserved another for his performance in The Notebook in 2004.) As he grew older, he used his age and experience to explore dramatic roles in a number of television movies that insured he was almost constantly working. His most notable performances came in Heartsounds, as a doctor facing his own mortality, and in Promise, as a preoccupied bachelor who suddenly has to care for his schizophrenic brother. He earned Emmy nominations for both performances.
The comfort audiences felt with Garner was put to an unusual test after John Ritter died, and ABC was presented with the challenge of figuring out how to resume the sitcom Ritter left behind, 8 Simple Rules. Garner was asked to play Katy Sagal’s father, and his presence not only added a new dimension to the program, but helped audiences through a melancholy adjustment. “I love working,” Garner said in 2004. “I’ve been in love with this business for about 45 years.” —Jamie Malanowski