James Garner (born James Scott Bumgarner; April 7, 1928 – July 19, 2014) was an American actor, producer, and voice artist. He starred in several television series over more than 5 decades, including such popular roles as Bret Maverick in the 1950s western comedy series Maverick and Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, and played leading roles in more than 50 theatrical films, including The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria (1982), Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, Space Cowboys (2000) with Clint Eastwood, and The Notebook (2004).
Garner was born in Norman, Oklahoma on April 7, 1928. He was the youngest of three sons of Weldon Warren Bumgarner and Mildred Scott (Meek). His older brothers were Jack Garner (1926-2011) and Charles Bumgarner, a school administrator who died in 1984. His family was Methodist. His mother died when he was 5 years old. After their mother’s death, Garner and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. Garner was reunited with his family in 1934, when Weldon remarried.
Garner came to hate his stepmother Wilma, who beat all three boys (especially James). When he was 14 years old, Garner had enough and after a heated battle, she left the family, never to return. Jack Garner later commented, “She was a damn no-good woman”. Garner (James) stated that his stepmother punished him by forcing him to wear a dress in public, and that he finally engaged in a physical fight with her, knocking her down and choking her to keep her from killing him in retaliation. This incident ended the marriage.
Shortly after his marriage broke up, Weldon Bumgarner moved to Los Angeles, though his sons stayed in Norman. After working at several jobs he disliked, Garner joined the United States Merchant Marine at age 16 near the end of World War II. He liked the work and his shipmates, but he suffered from chronic seasickness.
After the war, Garner joined his father in Los Angeles and enrolled at Hollywood High School, where he was voted the most popular student. A high school gym teacher recommended him for a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits. It paid well ($25 an hour), but in his first interview for the Archives of American Television, he said he hated modeling; he soon quit and returned to Norman. He played football and basketball at Norman High School), and competed on the track and golf teams. However, he dropped out in his senior year. In a 1976 Good Housekeeping magazine interview, he admitted, “I was a terrible student and I never actually graduated from high school, but I got my diploma in the Army.”
He enlisted in the National Guard, serving his first 7 months in California. He then went to Korea for 14 months, as a rifleman in the 5th Regimental Combat Team during the Korean War. He was wounded twice, first in the face and hand by shrapnel fire from a mortar round, and the second time in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dove headfirst into a foxhole. Garner received the Purple Heart in Korea for the first injury. He qualified for a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: “As the result of friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy”), but he did not actually receive it until 1983, 32 years after it had happened. Garner was a self-described “scrounger” for his company in Korea, a role he later played in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily.
Marriage and family
Garner was married to Lois Josephine Fleischman Clarke, whom he met at an “Adlai Stevenson for President” rally in 1956. They married 14 days later on August 17, 1956. “We went to dinner every night for 14 nights. I was just absolutely nuts about her. I spent $77 on our honeymoon, and it about broke me.” According to Garner, “Marriage is like the Army; everyone complains, but you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”
When Garner and Clarke married, her daughter Kim from a previous marriage was seven years old and recovering from polio. Garner had one daughter with Lois: Greta “Gigi” Garner. In an interview in Good Housekeeping with Garner, his wife, and two daughters conducted at their home that was published in March 1976, Gigi’s age was given as 18 and Kim’s as 27.
In late 1979, Garner separated from his wife (around the time The Rockford Files stopped filming), splitting his time between living in Canada and “a rented house in the Valley.” The two reconciled in September 1981, and remained married for the rest of his life. Garner died less than a month before their 58th wedding anniversary.
Garner’s knees became chronic problems during the filming of The Rockford Files in the 1970s, with “six or seven knee operations during that time.” In 2000, he underwent knee replacement surgery for both of them.
On April 22, 1988, Garner had quintuple bypass heart surgery. Though he recovered rapidly, he was advised to stop smoking. Garner quit smoking 17 years later.
Garner underwent surgery on May 11, 2008, following a severe stroke he had suffered two days earlier. His prognosis was reported to be “very positive.”
Garner was an owner of the “American International Racers” (AIR) auto racing team from 1967 through 1969. Motorsports writer William Edgar and Hollywood director Andy Sidaris teamed with Garner for the racing documentary The Racing Scene, filmed in 1969 and released in 1970. The team fielded cars at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring endurance races, but is best known for Garner’s celebrity status raising publicity in early off-road motor-sports events. In 1978, he was one of the inaugural inductees in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Garner signed a three-year sponsorship contract with American Motors Corporation (AMC). His shops prepared ten 1969 SC/Ramblers for the Baja 500 race. Garner did not drive in this event because of a film commitment in Spain that year. Nevertheless, seven of his cars finished the grueling race, taking three of the top five places in the sedan class. Garner also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1975, 1977, and 1985 (see: list of Indianapolis 500 pace cars).
Garner was an avid golfer for many years. Along with his brother, Jack, he played golf in high school. Jack even attempted a professional golfing career after a brief stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball farm system. Garner took it up again in the late 1950s to see if he could beat Jack. He was a regular for years at Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In February 1990 at the AT&T Golf Tournament, he won the Most Valuable Amateur Trophy. Garner appeared on Sam Snead’s Celebrity Golf TV series which aired from 1960 – 1963. These matches were 9-hole charity events pitting Snead against Hollywood celebrities.
University of Oklahoma
Garner was a supporter of the University of Oklahoma, often returning to Norman for school functions. When he attended Oklahoma Sooners football games, he frequently could be seen on the sidelines or in the press box. Garner received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at OU in 1995. In 2003, to endow the James Garner Chair in the School of Drama, he donated $500,000, half of a pledged $1 million, for the first endowed position at the drama school. Tom H. Orr, the Director for the School of Drama (Acting/Camera Acting) and the Artistic Director of the University Theatre, currently holds the James Garner Chair at the university.
Garner was a strong Democratic Party supporter. From 1982, Garner gave at least $29,000 to Federal campaigns, of which over $24,000 was to Democratic Party candidates, including Dennis Kucinich (for Congress in 2002), Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and various Democratic committees and groups.
On August 28, 1963, Garner was one of several celebrities to join Martin Luther King, Jr. in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In his autobiography, Garner recalled sitting in the third row listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
For his role in the 1985 CBS miniseries Space, the character’s party affiliation was changed from Republican as in the book to reflect Garner’s personal views. Garner said, “My wife would leave me if I played a Republican.”
There was an effort by California Democratic party leaders, led by state Senator Herschel Rosenthal, to persuade Garner to seek the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in the 1990 election. However, future United States Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein received the nomination instead, losing to Republican Pete Wilson in the election.
- Garner, James; Jon Winokur, introduction by Julie Andrews (2011). The Garner Files: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-4260-5. OCLC 709673421. CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
- Photos of the shooting The Great Escape. New book about the filming