To me, James Garner will always be Bret Maverick, his black hat worn girlishly on the back of his head, or “The Scrounger” in “The Great Escape,” a role modeled after Garner’s real-life exploits in the military. For some reason Garner’s aging through the years—his health issues ranged from a heart by-pass to knee replacements and several strokes—bothered me more than that of most stars from my youth. His death bothers me more. James Garner always struck me as a someone who should be perpetually young. Of course, I feel the same way about myself.
By all accounts from contemporaries, fans and colleagues, he was a decent, fair and usually amiable man who never let stardom turn him into a monster, as so many do. He had a single, long-lasting marriage and a stable family; he was not fodder for tabloids with affairs, illegitimate children, drug abuse or DUI arrests. He did apparently have a penchant for punching people in the nose who insulted him to his face, a habit about which he was unapologetic.
It was the one small character flaw, apparently, that arose out of Garner’s terrible childhood. He was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother was raising him alone when she died. He was only 5, and he and his two brothers were separated and shuttled between the homes of relatives for three years. Then Garner’s father, Weldon, an abusive alcoholic and rake who married four times, reunited the brothers under a single roof with the addition of their first stepmother, a sadist who regularly beat them—“Mostly me,” Garner told interviewers. Eventually young Garner fought back, engaging in a violent battle with his tormenter that precipitated her divorce from his father.
Such childhood traumas are often used by defense attorneys and expert witnesses in psychology to seduce judges into delivering lenient sentences to criminals for their anti-social behavior. It is certainly easy to see how a childhood like Garner’s could lead a young man to be bitter, angry, violent and defiant. It is also worth noting that this isn’t always the result. Sometime, if the individuals have good character, intelligence and the ability to tell right from wrong, these same youthful experiences can teach productive and beneficial lessons. In Garner’s case, they taught him never to tolerate abuse and exploitation, and to intervene when he saw others being abused.
Garner was known for using his status as a star on TV and movie set to prevent directors from mistreating assistants and performers. He also drove studios crazy by refusing to accept the routinely unethical financial practices of the industry. His connection with both of his hit series, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” ended when Garner insisted on fair compensation for his work on shows that were making fortunes for others, and he was one of the few actors willing to take powerful producers to court to challenge creative Hollywood accounting practices. Garner stood up for himself and paid a price. While he received millions in various settlements, he lost roles as a result: you couldn’t cheat him, you see. He would not allow a corrupt system to corrupt him, no matter how lucrative the rewards.
He didn’t let life corrupt him either, and when you start life like James Garner did, that’s an impressive achievement.