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Obituary: James Garner

James Garner

Obituary by Jack Foley

POPULAR actor James Garner, star of hit TV series The Rockford Files and Maverick as well as films including The Great Escape, has died aged 86.

The star, who had been suffering from ill health since a severe stroke in 2008, passed away on Saturday, July 19, 2014, according to the West LA Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, who added that he had died from “natural causes”.

In a career that won him countless fans across many generations, Garner won an Emmy for his portrayal of laconic private investigator Jim Rockford in 1977 and starred in 122 episodes of the hugely successful show between 1974 and 1980. He returned to it in the 90s with eight Rockford Files TV movies.

But he also found long-lasting success in another small screen role, as poker-playing Bret Maverick in the Western comedy Maverick, a series which ran for 60 episodes from 1957 to 1962, and again for another 18 from 1981 to 1982. It also spawned a big screen version that saw Garner co-starring in the film alongside Mel Gibson.

Of his most popular film roles, it was perhaps his portrayal of “scrounger” flight lieutenant Robert Hendley, an American in the RAF, in John Sturgess’ star-studded The Great Escape that will endure the most.

He appeared alongside Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence in the film, which depicted the daring escape by prisoners of war from the German Stalag Luft III camp through a 336ft (102m) long tunnel during World War II.

However, other memorable roles came in 1966 racing drama Grand Prix, a fictional account of the Formula One season featuring actual racing footage, and 1986’s Murphy’s Romance, which saw him Oscar nominated for best actor.

In 1963, he also starred alongside Doris Day in Move over Darling and won widespread acclaim for 1982’s gender-bending comedy Victor Victoria alongside Julie Andrews. Fans of romantic dramas will also remember him fondly for his performance in The Notebook.

Another of my favourite roles came alongside Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in Space Cowboys.

Born in Oklahoma and brought up by relatives after the death of his mother and the subsequent absence of his father, Garner left home at an early age and, after trying many jobs, signed up to fight for the United States Army in Korea.

He was injured in 1951 but had to wait until 1983 to receive his medal, the Purple Heart.

Thereafter, he slowly found his way into acting, first landing a non-speaking role in the 1954 Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial alongside Henry Fonda.

Garner later described his tuition from Fonda as invaluable and he went on to win a role in the 1956 film Towards The Unknown, about early supersonic flight experiments.

Away from the screen, he married his wife, the TV actress Lois Clarke, in 1957, and they shared two daughters, Kimberly from her previous marriage, and their daughter Greta.

In 2005, he received a Screen Actor’s Guild lifetime achievement award.

Among those to pay tribute were Sherlock writer and star Mark Gatiss, who said via Twitter: “Goodbye, Jim Rockford. The wonderful, amiable James Garner has gone.”

Stephen Fry added: “So sad to hear that James Garner has gone. A real part of my childhood, Rockford and the Maverick especially.”

In its tribute, meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times recalled a quote from the late director Robert Altman, who said in 1979: “I have long thought Jim Garner was one of the best actors around. He is often overlooked because he makes it so easy, and that is not easy to do. I don’t know anyone in the business with his charm and charisma who can act so well.”

It also referred back to a line from Clint Eastwood, who said of his Space Cowboys co-star, and who followed Garner from the small screen, that he had “opened the door for people like Steve McQueen and myself”.