Gary Strauss / USAToday
Actor James Garner, whose genial charm and sly humor made him a Hollywood fixture for more than 50 years, has died at 86.
The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press reported his death, citing Los Angeles Police.
Tall and handsome, Garner had the leading-man looks that led to roles in big-screen dramas ranging from 1958's Darby's Rangers to 1963's The Great Escape. But his flair for light comedy earned him several starring film roles, and extended to the small screen as well, with series hits Maverick and The Rockford Files.
'I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor,' Garner once said. 'His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't [or] looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.'
Garner's acting career began in 1954 with a non-speaking role in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Soon after, he landed TV roles, commercials and a movie contract with Warner Bros.
Asked if he would ever do a nude scene, he quipped, 'I don't do horror films.'
Garner gained widespread popularity in 1957 starring as the wisecracking riverboat gambler in the comedy/western Maverick. But Garner left after three years in a dispute over money.
Twenty years later, he won an Emmy for perhaps the role that gave him his most visibility as James Rockford, the laid-back, beach-dwelling private detective of NBC's Rockford Files, which ran from 1974 to 1980.
Garner, who did many of his own stunts, ultimately pulled the plug on the show because of the high physical toll on his knees and neck. But the show and his iconic character proved so popular that eight Rockford Files TV movies followed.
Garner continued to alternate between film and TV roles. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Murphy's Romance, acting opposite Sally Field. He starred as freewheeling CEO F. Ross Johnson in 1993 HBO film Barbarians at the Gate, which earned him a Golden Globe award, his third. He stepped in for more than 40 episodes of ABC's Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter following the 2003 death of series star John Ritter. Garner also starred in 2000's Space Cowboys, 2002's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the 2004 hit The Notebook, in which he and Gena Rowlands played the older versions of a couple portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
Garner, born James Scott Baumgarner in Norman, Okla., was the son of a carpet layer. His mother, who was part Cherokee Indian, died when he was just 4. After dropping out of high school, Garner joined the Merchant Marines. He served in the Army during the Korean War, where he was wounded in action and twice received the Purple Heart.
Garner married Lois Clarke two weeks after they met in 1956. They remained together until his death.
'Marriage is like the Army; everyone complains,' he once said. 'But you'd be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.'
Daughter Greta Garner-Hewitt is the author of The Cop Cookbook: Arresting Recipes from the World's Favorite Cops, Good Guys, and Private Eyes.
Garner also had success as a Madison Avenue pitchman. In the 1970s, he starred in a series of popular Polaroid commercials with actress Mariette Hartley. Their on-camera shtick was so convincing that many believed they were actually married. In the '80s, he was the North American spokesman for automaker Mazda, and later did voiceovers for Chevrolet trucks.
Despite his star status, Garner was never enamored with being in Hollywood's limelight. 'I got into the business to put a roof over my head,' he said. 'I wasn't looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.'