James Garner had a Hollywood chin but Everyman's eyes. He was a relatable lug whose most iconic work — TV's Maverick in the '50s, The Rockford Files in the '70s — endures because his beat-up, beleaguered guys looked a whole lot like us: trying and failing to avoid trouble, dodging bill collectors and bad news on the answering machine.
Mr. Garner, who suffered heart problems and had a stroke in 2008, was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday. He was 86. One of the first stars to find success in both TV and movies, his career was robust and varied. In 2004, he caught the eye of a new generation of swoony girls with his weepy portrayal of an older Noah — the ultimate loyal romantic! — in The Notebook.
And yet a large swath of Mr. Garner's roles — from the Scrounger in 1963's The Great Escape to those flirty Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley in the '70s — were imbued with a comic, eye-rolling exasperation. Mr. Garner's guys often just wanted to be left alone, heroes in spite of themselves.
"I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really," Mr. Garner told the New York Times in 1984. "It's always been a means to an end, which is to make a living." That sounds humble, and maybe a little grumpy, but it was also Mr. Garner's greatest strength: He, and his characters, were just trying to get by.
Born James Scott Bumgarner in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, Mr. Garner would be his state's first draftee in the Korean War, a conflict in which he shattered his knees during 1951's First Spring Offensive, earning a Purple Heart. He later wandered to California to find his estranged dad, and tried out for an acting job on a whim.
For all his populist success — he was nominated for an Oscar for 1985's May-December rom-com Murphy's Romance — Mr. Garner actually tweaked preconceived notions of tough guys, what a real man should look like. In Blake Edwards' 1982 gender-bamboozle Victor/Victoria, Mr. Garner's macho lead fell in love with Julie Andrews' character, a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. He wasn't sure who she (or he) was, but he knew he loved her, and that was good enough.
War hero or not, Mr. Garner had no interest in being John Wayne. Too much trouble, not enough fun. Yes, he often got the girl (Mr. Garner, a former athlete, was handsome until the end), and he could drive the heck out of private eye Jimmy Rockford's tire-squealing Pontiac Firebird. But for all the punches he threw, he was even better at taking one on that thick granite jaw. Down goes Garner, again and again, a newfound action schlub who would pave the way for Tom Selleck's Magnum P.I. and other flawed hunks.
Perhaps no one understood Mr. Garner's appeal better than composer Mike Post, who wrote the classic theme for The Rockford Files, which was ranked 39th on TV Guide's list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Times. The score was mainly upbeat, synth-driven, but strains of jailhouse harmonica (the P.I. was a wrongly accused ex-con) and a bittersweet guitar let you know things wouldn't stay upbeat for long. The funniest moments on The Rockford Files — usually when Jim was getting conned by his pal Angel — were accompanied by a sad, wah-wah guitar. Better luck next time, pal.
Each episode of The Rockford Files opened up with a message on the gumshoe's answering machine, a different variation of comically lousy news. The messages are illustrative of the character, but also of Garner's working persona, as well.
Jim, this is Norma at the market. It bounced. Do you want us to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?
It's Lori at the trailer park. A space opened up. Do you want me to save it, or are the cops gonna let you stay where you are?
Mr. Garner first mined that universal woe-is-us resilience as Maverick, a fast-talking cardsharp in the Wild West who had little interest in a pulling a gun or facing down the barrel of one. In 1964's The Americanization of Emily, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, Mr. Garner's Charlie Madison is a Navy lieutenant doing his best to avoid any part of the D-day invasion. He'd much rather woo Julie Andrews' titular motor pool driver, much rather be a lover, not a casualty.
Mr. Garner is survived by his wife, Lois Clarke, whom he married in 1956. She had a daughter, Kimberly, from a previous marriage, and the Garners had another daughter, Gretta Scott.
In a preface to his 2011 autobiography, The Garner Files, he wrote, "I've avoided writing a book until now because I'm really pretty average and I didn't think anyone would care about my life."
What James Garner never fully understood is that he helped the rest of us realize that being "average" can also be pretty darn extraordinary.
Contact Sean Daly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife.