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James Garner in ‘The Great Escape.’

Mr. Movie: James Garner

James Garner always seemed like the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with, the sort of man you’d want for a brother-in-law. He died at 86. The handsome, laid-back actor made a good living in the niche he solidly carved out for himself.


When the powers-that-be decided to make Maverick into a TV series, there was no other choice for the easy-going con man brother Bret than James Garner. This very successful series ran from 1957-62 and spawned a mediocre movie in 1994 with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster.


The character he played so well first surfaced on the big screen in The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Robert Attenborough. Garner is Hendley, called “The Scrounger” by the other prison camp inmates, for his ability to con the Germans and get whatever is needed. This is a great WWII movie. McQueen’s motorcycle ride is worth the price of admission.


In Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Garner is the easiest-going and funniest lawman the Wild West ever saw. Rather than using a gun or his fists, he makes great use of his charm to defuse violent situations. And he somehow gets you to believe that he could make this approach work.


The little-known but excellent TV series Nichols ran from 1971 to 1972 for only 24 episodes. It was one of my favorites, as the iconic Garner played the sheriff of a small western town, eschewing a gun or any other display of violence.


And when the TV networks wanted a detective show with an easy-going, laid-back lead who would rather talk than fight, they or course settled on James Garner to play the main guy in The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974-1980 and led to a couple of so-so made for TV movies with pretty much the same cast and crew.


If you dial back to 1961, you can find Mr. Garner in a more serious role in The Children’s Hour, also starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. The two women are teachers at a girls school and their careers are in shambles after untrue gossip is spread by a disgruntled student. Mr. Garner is the long-suffering fiance of one of the teachers and one of the few who stands by them.


Garner was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as a middle-aged man in love with a much younger woman (Sally Field) in Murphy’s Romance (1985). This is an endearing movie with good and likable actors. Mr. Garner lost to William Hurt for Kiss of The Spider Woman.


All of the movies and TV series in this column are available on DVD. Only The Children’s Hour is unsuitable for kids under 12.