He made a name for himself playing unlikely heroes in popular series such as “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” but James Garner was an unlikely actor, too, turning to show business almost in passing.
Before catching the acting bug in his mid-twenties, Garner served in the Army and performed a string of menial labor positions. In 1954, he scored a non-speaking role in a Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” starring Henry Fonda. The fledgling actor discovered his passion for the dramatic arts while watching the veteran actor master the stage.
“[Fonda] was very subtle in his movements, and, you know, you can’t copy him,” says Garner. “[From Fonda] I learned not to make extra moves.”
In his fitful early acting career, Garner worked with several high-profile actors, Marlon Brando among them, before he was finally cast in a Western series called “Maverick.” The show eventually showcased Garner’s self-deprecating humor and natural charisma with his co-stars, and made the reluctant actor a household name.
“You can see what he is thinking,” said writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell. “He’s just so unusual in that respect. …I just thought there was something about him that was so special and … he was my biggest hero on television,” he recalls of watching Garner when Cannell was a kid.
Garner’s Take on Fame
While Garner enjoys working as an actor in several of America’s favorite television shows, fame is something this down-to-earth Midwesterner could do without.
“I wasn’t too fond of [fame], but you get caught up in it and you say, ‘Well, things are going well.’ …It’s not something that I wanted to achieve — being famous. I was just trying to make a living. The loss of anonymity was a kind of shock to me,” Garner said in an interview with the Archive of American Television.
Still, Garner is humbled to be associated with the vehicle that first introduced him to America and cemented his popularity: the Western. “It’s our heritage,” he says. “The West was our frontier. I just liked Westerns. I never wanted to be an actor. I got stuck in it and kind of liked what I was doing. I had fun.”