Remember that old saw? Many performers were introduced that way and only a very few of them really qualified.

But actor James Garner, who died July 19 at age 86, could legitimately be called a STAR of television and the big screen. For much of his active career, he juggled successes in both at the same time.

Garner was part of a rare breed, a man who started in films, then made it BIG in TV, returned to films to become a top-billed leading man, then returned to TV to another hit series, then returned once more to re-succeed in films.

Not a stage star, but in a way the Broadway stage was his training ground. He’d been cast as a member of the court martial panel in The Caine Mutiny. He had no lines. But every night for a year he was able to observe Henry Fonda and the other topnotch actors in the production.

We first noticed Garner in a small role in the 1957 Marlon Brando romantic drama, Sayonara. But it was television which catapulted him into every American living room (at least into those furnished with sets) in the off-beat western series Maverick — the first of his four principal tube series — which aired from 1957 to 1960.

When he returned to films it was as a leading man. He made over 30 features and starred opposite the top leading ladies of the time, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Lee Remick, Natalie Wood, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint. He also starred opposite some top leading men — Steve McQueen in 1963’s World War II prisoner-of-war drama, The Great Escape, for one.

His best film, and his favorite was 1964’s The Americanization of Emily opposite Julie Andrews, James Coburn and Melvyn Douglas.  Arthur Hiller directed Paddy Chayefsky‘s very literate script about a Naval officer on a dangerous mission both romantically and otherwise.

In the 1970s it was back to the small screen and one of the most successful TV series ever, the private eye saga The Rockford Files (1974 to 1980). (Two other Garner tv outings, 1981’s Bret Maverick and 1991’s Man of the People, were much less successful.) 

But he did what no other actor had done –bounced back to the big screen again.

With hits like 1982’s Victor Victoria costarring Julie Andrews, directed by Blake Edwards (not to be confused with Victor/Victoria, a 1995 tv version of the same material also starring Andrews); and as a small-town pharmacist lending a helping hand to single mother Sally Field in 1985’s Murphy’s Romance, he was still playing leading men.

Then as a character actor he continued to work until his 80s, even scoring a hit as Gena Rowlands’ husband in The Notebook back in 2004.

On the business side, Garner was not a man to be trifled with.  He was one half of Garner-Duchow Productions, which produced made-for-tv movies starring you-know-who. He was not afraid to take his studio differences to court. In one case, he famously sued MCA-Universal, the owner of the The Rockford Files series, demanding what he felt was his rightful share of the show’s profits.

He was a unique star in another way too. He was married only once, a union that survived periodic separations and Garner’s various health problems. He and Lois Clarke would have celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary next month.

 

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