Chuck Ross

James Garner: The Inside Story of a TV Superstar. In Garner’s Two Most Famous Series, the ‘Situation Was Always Hopeless, But Never Serious’

Jul 21, 2014

During the 1950s, when television was first sweeping the country and putting a serious dent in movie going, there were not a lot of actors who became big stars primarily because of their association with scripted programming — as opposed to variety shows — on the small screen.

Lucille Ball became one, and Jack Webb another. They were the stars of “I Love Lucy” and “Dragnet,” respectively. Raymond Burr became a household name as the title character in “Perry Mason.” James Arness became familiar to millions in “Gunsmoke.”

And James Garner, who died this past Saturday night, July 19, 2014 at age 86, became a TV superstar by playing, twice, a character its creator once told Newsweek was “a happy existentialist. His motives all derive from himself, never from others or from ‘the community.’ These motives are profit, curiosity, anger, sex and self-preservation.”

These two roles that fit Garner like a well-worn favorite sweatshirt were Bret Maverick in the late 1950s and Jim Rockford in the mid-1970s.

Roy Huggins, who was the creator of  “Maverick” and the co-creator (with Stephen J. Cannell) of “The Rockford Files,” is quoted in Raymond Strait’s 1985 biography “James Garner” (a book with which Garner did not participate), saying: “ ‘The Rockford Files’ was simply ‘Maverick’ as a modern-day private eye. That’s all. Played by the same character. [The main character in both shows] was a guy who didn’t like to put himself in danger. Didn’t like to work too hard … somewhat cowardly. Was not a superman or superhero. When he hit the villain with his fist he would wince and go ‘Oww!,’ which is what Maverick did.

Previously Huggins had said about "Maverick": "In the traditional Western story the situation is always serious, but never hopeless. In a 'Maverick' story the situation is always hopeless but never serious."

Now, talking about the Rockford character really being an incarnation of Bret Maverick, Huggins said, “Doing ‘Maverick’ in modern-day circumstances meant that I had to have a guy who is kind of an outsider, which is why I made him a former convict. As an ex-con, he was an outsider because of his background, whereas Maverick had been an outsider by choice. In both he maintained a certain sense of humor. Garner humor — and that’s the difference.”

In his own 2011 memoir, “The Garner Files,” (co-written by Jon Winokur), Garner writes: “If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy. One is a gambler and one is a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”

Of course, like most folks, in the case of “Maverick” I pretty much thought I was just watching a Western that was different because its main character had such a great sense of humor and was a gambling card player with the fastest verbal jab in town, compensating for a lack of quickness in the draw.

Similarly, like most viewers, what I enjoyed so much about “The Rockford Files” was its wry sensibility and the panache with which Garner and the show’s terrific ensemble played off one another.

And do you remember how each “Rockford” episode started with an answering machine joke, such as "Jim, it's Eddie. You were right about Sweet Talk in the seventh. He breezed in, paid $72.50. But I didn't get your bet down." Just that bit alone every week I thought was a hilarious send-up of “Mission: Impossible,” with its oh-so-serious beginning of each episode having the tape intoning “Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it …”

Garner became a TV star virtually within weeks of “Maverick’s” premiere on Sept. 22, 1957. Even Garner's becoming an actor to begin with is storybook. Here’s how Garner, who was born and spent his childhood in Oklahoma, told the story, from an article by Pete Martin that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on Oct. 11, 1958:

“When I was 16 I went into the merchant marine. It was 1944 and every boy my age wanted to get himself a piece of the war. We didn’t have much sense. My father signed a letter so I could join up. I stayed in the service over a year, then came home and stayed with my father in Los Angeles. I intended to ship out again, but dad talked me into going back to school. I enrolled in Hollywood High.”

Garner went there for about a year and then says a model agency called the school looking for 10 fellows to model bathing suits. The phys-ed teacher picked Garner as one of the 10.

Garner picks up the story: “When I quit Hollywood High, I worked at a service station on Hollywood Boulevard, and Paul [Gregory] worked across the street as a soda jerk. … [H]e was trying to be a theatrical agent, and he thought maybe I should be an actor, but I wanted no part of it. I had read stories about actors in the fan magazines and I didn’t like what I’d read. Some of these stories were so maudlin they were stomach-turning. I don’t care for nightclubs, and it seemed to me that all those people did was nightclub crawling. I didn’t like those multiple love affairs, either.”

Flash forward seven or eight years later. By this time Garner has served in the Korean War and is back in Los Angeles with his dad. He had read that Paul Gregory had become a theatrical agent. He sees Gregory’s name on a building and decides to stop in and say hello to his old friend. “He not only talked me into being an actor, he also signed me to a contract,” Garner said.

After a non-speaking part in a play in New York, “I came back to California and waited," Garner says. "Bill Orr, a TV executive producer at Warners, hired me for ‘Cheyenne.’ It was my first show. … I was terrible. After that I don’t know why they hired me again. I quite honestly thought it was poor judgment on their part. Then Warners screen-tested  me and signed me. I’ve been there ever since.”

He was in a few movies, including “Sayonara” in 1957, which starred Marlon Brando. It was filmed in Japan. Garner says, “I don’t know what their thought processes were, but the studio cabled Japan, ‘When you finish with Jim in “Sayonara,” send him back here.’ I have no idea what the link was between [the character I played in ‘Sayonara,’ Captain] Bailey and Maverick, other than in both of them I was a carefree guy always having a ball. There was some humor in my scenes in ‘Sayonara.’ Maybe that did it.” Garner was 29 years old.

Tim Brooks, in the book he co-wrote, “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” notes that when “Cheyenne” and “Gunsmoke” debuted in September 1955, it started a huge trend in TV to adult Westerns. Only four adult Westerns were on  the prime-time network schedule a year  later, in the fall of 1956. A year after that, in 1957, the three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, had 14 Westerns on their prime-time schedule. By the fall of 1958, “Twenty–one Westerns are being put on film,” reported Look magazine.

Writes Brooks: “By 1958-1959, seven out of the top ten series [in the ratings] were Westerns — a dominance seldom achieved by any program type.” The ten top-rated shows for the 1958-‘59 season were, in order from 1 to 10: “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Rifleman,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “Maverick,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “The Real McCoys,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” Another Western, “Bonanza,” which would become a ratings juggernaut, would not premiere until the next season.

The year before “Maverick” went on the air, the No. 1-rated show on TV was “I Love Lucy,” with an average weekly rating of 43.7. No. 2 that year was “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with an average weekly rating of 38.4. Sullivan was already long a staple of CBS’s Sunday prime-time schedule when, in 1956, Steve Allen, the first host of “The Tonight Show,” had quit that program to challenge Sullivan with Allen’s own variety show. Allen had some ratings success against Sullivan, but not a lot.

The hour-long shows of both Sullivan and Allen started at 8 p.m. on Sundays. Helping Sullivan’s show was the fact that it was on immediately after the popular “Jack Benny Show.”

Remarkably, “Maverick,” starring the then unknown Garner, had an almost immediate impact in the ratings. So dramatic and unexpected was this that Allen sent Garner the following note, according to a Time magazine article on Dec. 30, 1957: “Somebody told me you carry a .45 and I got pretty scared, I thought it was your rating.” Added Time, “It darn near was. Maverick Garner was giving Allen and his fellow TV Titan Ed Sullivan plenty to worry about in the Sunday-at-8 spot. Last week, for the fifth time, ‘Maverick’ (on 7:30 to 8:30) outrode both of them in the Trendex [ratings] derby — for what that is worth (and to TV and ad moguls it still seems to be worth millions). Also, ‘Maverick’ for the first time kicked dust into the face of the almost peerless Jack Benny.”

By the end of "Maverick's" first season, Sullivan's program was down by more than 10 reatings points.

Despite the fact that Roy Huggins, who passed away 12 years ago at age 87, was so pleased with Garner’s performance as Maverick that he wanted him almost 20 years later to play the lead in “The Rockford Files,” Garner wrote in his 2011 memoir, “Roy did have a great line about me: ‘Jim Garner and I have a love/hate relationship: I love him and he hates me.’ It  wasn’t true. Roy didn’t love me at all.

“But I may not be an impartial witness. I knew more than I should about Roy because [one of my friends] was his brother-in-law. More than that I can’t say.”

Whoa! What a curveball. Garner and the man most responsible for his signature roles didn’t get along. Huggins was a huge TV talent. Besides “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” he created “77 Sunset  Strip,” “The Fugitive” and “Baretta.”

Raymond Strait, in his bio about Garner, says one dispute between the two men stems from the 1958 Emmys. “Maverick” won for Best Western, and Huggins went up to receive the Emmy. But instead of giving the traditional speech thanking people connected with the show, he just said “Thank You” and sat down. Huggins later explained to a number of people on the show — but not Garner — that the Emmy broadcast was running late and he was asked by the Emmy folks not to give a speech.

Later on “Rockford,” Garner, in his memoir, claims he finally fired Huggins from the show. Huggins claimed he was leaving anyway.

Ed Robertson, an author who has written books about both “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” is also quoted in Garner’s memoir. Robertson says, “Talk to anyone who worked with Jim, and the word 'family' will emerge almost immediately. In many cases, their association with Jim lasted several decades. No wonder they consider him, and he considers them, family.

“Roy Huggins was never part of that extended family — which seems odd at first, considering how integral Roy was to Jim’s two greatest successes.”

After explaining that Huggins worked odd hours, so he had actually little contact with Garner, Robertson says, “I respect and admire both men. Whatever personal differences kept them apart, their professional collaborations changed the face of television in two genres. Along the way, they each left their own distinctive mark, for which we should all be grateful.”

James Garner also made almost 50 movies for the big screen. I love “The Great Escape,” but Garner’s just an ensemble player in that. Garner’s favorite movie was “The Americanization of Emily,” from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. It’s easily his best film.

But it was on TV that Garner was a superstar. Not only are Maverick and Rockford his signature roles, he made some absolutely outstanding TV movies, including “Heartsounds,” “Promise,” “My Name Is Bill W” and “Barbarians at the Gate.” I highly recommend all of these TV movies, especially HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate” from 1993. It’s based on a well-known book —  a non-fiction business book — about RJR Nabisco being bought out. I know that sounds like it might make a decent documentary, but not a very engrossing regular movie.

In fact, Garner won a Golden Globe for “Barbarians” as best actor in a TV movie. The movie also won the Golden Globe and Emmy as the best TV movie of the year. That’s primarily because of Larry Gelbart’s script. It’s a must-see that hasn’t lost any of its satirical bite. 

In his memoir — which I urge you to read in its entirety — Garner says, “If anybody asks how do you want to be remembered, I tell them ‘With a smile.’"

I also like this, from Garner’s readers note at the beginning of his memoir:

Above all, I want you to know I have no regrets. Here’s this dumb kid from Oklahoma, raised during the Depression, comes to Hollywood, gets a career, becomes famous, makes some money, has a wonderful family … what would I change? Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing.   

The rockford files.jpg



  1. He was my favorite actor. I think that he brought so much personality to his characters.

  2. I loved “Maverick” and I loved “Rockford”. Garner had an easy charm and unique humor like nobody else; he was in a class by himself–and his characters were both irresistible.

    Now, years later, my husband and I are watching both programs again, one by streaming, one on . on discs.

    They’re both holding up just great–and he’s still in a class by himself.

  3. I always really liked him. Too bad he suffered from depression.

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