On his day off in London, James Garner tried to take his young daughter sightseeing. Greta “Gigi” Garner recalls arriving at the famed Tower of London with her father, who was in England filming a movie. “We got out of the car, and we got mobbed,” Gigi tells Closer. “I think that’s when it dawned on me that there was something different about my dad.”
The witty, beloved actor starred in some 50 films, was nominated for an Oscar and brought TV underdog heroes Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford to life on the small screen but disliked the trappings of stardom. He and his wife, Lois, raised their family quietly, out of the spotlight, in Brentwood, Calif., when it was still considered a rural outpost of Los Angeles. “I absolutely hate publicity,” James once said. “I’d rather dig a ditch than do an interview.”
The Oklahoma-born star admitted he got into show business on a whim. Though he’d done some modeling in high school, James didn’t truly consider acting until he knocked on the door of a talent agent he’d met some time before while pumping gas. Cast in a nonspeaking role in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which eventually landed on Broadway, he had a chance to study the play’s leading man, Henry Fonda, up close. “I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” James said.
Henry would become a lifelong pal, but James, who confessed that he suffered from stage fright, didn’t continue in live theater. Instead, he moved into films, including 1957’s Sayonara with Marlon Brando, and, more important, television, where he brought poker player Bret Maverick to life from 1957 to 1960 and donned the tatty sport coat of Jim Rockford from 1974 to 1980. “If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir The Garner Files. “One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”
James met his future wife, Lois Clarke, in 1956 at an event for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. “It was love at first sight,” said James, who proposed marriage two weeks later. They wed over his family’s objections — Lois was raised Jewish, James was Methodist — and the actor adopted her daughter, Kimberly. Two years later, their daughter Gigi was born. “I really hit the jackpot with my dad,” she confides. “He was the type of father that got down on the floor and played with you. He was very present. The greatest father in the world.”
Being a good father and husband meant everything to James, whose own dad had been an alcoholic who married several times. One of James’ stepmothers, Red, seemed to take pleasure in belittling and beating James and his two brothers. “People that had abusive childhoods like my dad often continue the cycle,” notes Gigi, an artist and philanthropist. “My dad stopped the cycle, and he tried to give us everything that he never had.”
James found satisfaction at home with his family. “He was a homebody. He was very happy being home with us, watching sports and hanging with the dogs,” Gigi says. “I think if he wasn’t an actor, he probably would have been a sports announcer because he knew sports so well.”
Yet James’ troubled upbringing left him prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. “He was something when he got angry, but he would never take it out on anyone except himself,” Maverick director Leslie H. Martinson once said. “He’d turn around and very quietly haul off and slam his fist into the wall or a board.” Typical of his generation of men, James tried not to bring his troubles home. “He didn’t walk around complaining,” Gigi says. “He handled things quietly.”
But the grind of television gave James ulcers, and he suffered injuries doing his own stunts. During the 1971 TV season, when he starred on Nichols, he and Lois separated for a period. They reunited but separated again when the pressure and hoopla surrounding The Rockford Files became too much for him. “The reason my wife and I are separated is that I was so physically and mentally exhausted from work that I said I had to take a sabbatical,” James said. “I needed a hiatus…and my wife understood that.”
The Rockford Files brought James his biggest TV success, but he paid a high price for all the punch-outs and high-speed car chases his private eye got into each week. James suffered back issues and endured several knee operations while starring on the show. “He had to stop doing The Rockford Files just because he was so beat up. He physically couldn’t do it anymore,” says Gigi. “He used to say, ‘If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.'”
James continued to work into his later years. A whole new generation fell in love with him in 2004’s romance The Notebook. He also returned to television in comedies like 8 Simple Rules (2002).
In 2014, he died away at his Brentwood home at age 86 after a heart attack. “My father was an all-around good guy and a big animal lover,” says Gigi, who founded the James Garner Animal Rescue Fund (jgarf .org) in his honor. “He was just a genuine person who lived by the Golden Rule. You just don’t get people like that nowadays.”