James ‘Rockford’ Garner: The former swimsuit model was awarded Purple Hearts in Korea

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By Lucie M. Winborne,
ReMIND Magazine

This tall, handsome, quarter-Cherokee high-school dropout stumbled into acting. James Scott Bumgarner, better known to fans as James Garner, was born on April 7, 1928, in Norman, Oklahoma. His early years were marked by abandonment, as his mother, Mildred Bumgarner, died when he was just five and his father, Weldon “Bill” Bumgarner, left his sons to the care of relatives until his remarriage a year later. Bill’s second wife was physically and verbally abusive to her stepsons, and the couple eventually divorced, with Bill again leaving his sons behind.

In 1944 young James concealed his age to enter the Merchant Marines, but upon discovering he suffered from seasickness, he packed his bags for Los Angeles to live with his dad while briefly attending Hollywood High School. Unsurprisingly, modeling Jantzen swimsuits proved more enticing than classwork, since at $25 per hour Garner earned more than his teachers. His modeling, however, was interrupted when in 1950 he became the first Oklahoman to be drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War, resulting in two battlefield injuries, as well as two Purple Hearts.

Readjusting to civilian life in L.A. proved challenging until a former coworker turned theatrical producer offered Garner a role in a Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, starring Henry Fonda. The men became friends, and Garner later described Fonda as his greatest acting teacher. Film roles followed, but Garner’s real break came in the persona of poker-playing antihero Bret Maverick in the TV Western Maverick. He returned to the silver screen in The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily and Grand Prix before winning new fans as private eye Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, which, like Maverick, gently parodied its own genre. He further charmed audiences with Mariette Hartley in a popular series of commercials for Polaroid.

Though plagued with health issues including the aggravation of old war injuries, quintuple bypass surgery and a stroke, Garner continued to work steadily in both TV and films, earning an Oscar nomination for Murphy’s Romance, a Golden Globe Award for 1990’s Decoration Day, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.

On the home front, his marriage to Lois Clarke lasted nearly as long as his impressive career. Praised by SAG president Melissa Gilbert as “a role model for all of America’s actors,” James Garner took his last earthly bow on July 19, 2014. He was 86.

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