New York • Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.
James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to further make his point.
This portrait of fleeting disquiet could be understood, and identified with, by every member of the audience. Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn.
He burst on the scene with this disarming style in the 1950s TV Western "Maverick," which led to a stellar career in TV and films such as "The Rockford Files" and his Oscar-nominated "Murphy’s Romance."
The 86-year-old Garner, who was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, was adept at drama and action. But he was best known for his low-key, wisecracking style, especially on his hit TV series, "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files."
His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of John Wayne and the laconic trigger-happiness of Clint Eastwood.
There’s no better display of Garner’s everyman majesty than the NBC series "The Rockford Files" (1974-80). He played an L.A. private eye and wrongly jailed ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took, while helplessly getting drawn into trouble to help someone who was neither a client nor even a friend. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show’s opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor.
Well into his 70s, the handsome Oklahoman remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock’s father in the film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." The next year, he joined the cast of "8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter," playing the grandfather on the sitcom — and helping ground it with his reassuring presence — after star John Ritter, who played the father, died during the show’s second season. It was in 1957 when the ABC network, desperate to compete on ratings-rich Sunday night, scheduled "Maverick" against CBS’s powerhouse "The Ed Sullivan Show" and NBC’s "The Steve Allen Show." To everyone’s surprise — except Garner’s— "Maverick" soon out-polled them both.
In the 1966 racing film "Grand Prix" he starred as an American driver in the Formula One series. Garner, who loved auto racing, formed and owned the American International Racers auto racing team from 1967 through 1969, and drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985.
His only Oscar nomination came for the 1985 "Murphy’s Romance," a comedy about a small-town love relationship in which he co-starred with Sally Field. He said he learned about acting while playing a non-speaking role as a Navy juror in the 1954 Broadway hit play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan.
"I had no lines, and I had trouble staying awake," Garner recalled.
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