He was born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, the third and youngest son of Mildred and Weldon Bumgarner. His young life was very unsettled; at the age of four, his mother passed away, and James and his brothers Charles and Jack were sent away to live with relatives. When their father remarried in 1930 the boys were able to return home, but their stepmother mistreated them and the marriage ended after her cruelty to the boys, James in particular, grew untenable. Weldon, leaving the boys behind, moved to Los Angeles to look for steady work. After a brief stint in the Merchant Marines at the age of 16 (which ended due to his extreme seasickness), James followed his father to California, where he enrolled in Hollywood High School briefly. While there, he was recommended for a Jantzen swimsuit modeling job which turned out to be his first taste of Hollywood.
Grown tired of modeling and repelled by the phoniness of the Hollywood movie system, he returned to Norman and re-enrolled in high school there for a short time, before dropping out for good and enrolling in the National Guard. After a serious knee injury, he was discharged from the National Guard, only to be drafted by the Army in 1949 and sent to fight in Korea, where he was twice wounded and awarded two Purple Hearts.
After his discharge from the Army, he was persuaded by producer Paul Gregory, an old friend from his Hollywood High School days, to accept a role in his Broadway play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial". In taking the role and studying following Henry Fonda's performance every night, James learned what he deemed his most effective tool in acting: listening.
His Broadway experience led him back to Los Angeles, where he won roles in commercials and TV, eventually signing a contract with Warner Brothers, who changed his screen name to Garner without his permission for his appearance in the 1956 film The Girl He Left Behind. In that same year he met Lois Clark at a political rally, and the two married 14 days later. Garner adopted Lois’s daughter Kimberly, and the couple also had a daughter together, Greta. It was after Greta’s birth that he legally changed his surname to Garner, as he was concerned that his children would have too many last names.
In 1957, he won a lead in the new television series “Maverick”, the role in which he originated and refined the ‘charming and hesitantly heroic con-man’ persona that would resonate with audiences through the remainder of his career. His turn as Bret Maverick, first imagined as the focal point of a by-the-numbers Western soon morphed into a new sort of anti-hero, one with a sense of humor who would rather charm than shoot or fight his way out of a bad situation. This portrayal of Bret earned him a Golden Globe in 1958, and an Emmy nomination in 1957. Network concerns led James to leave the show in 1960 and head back to feature films, where he relied on his life’s experiences to flesh out roles in a varied collection of films: the dramatic The Children’s Hour; war movies The Great Escape, 36 Hours and The Americanization of Emily; romantic comedies The Thrill Of It All and Move Over Darling and even racing drama Grand Prix. It was during Grand Prix that Garner discovered one of his life’s passions – auto racing – that would inspire him to support a racing team himself.
In 1970, he joined forces once again with “Maverick” creator Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell to bring a new detective show to television, “The Rockford Files”. Much like they had in “Maverick”, they used the show to reinvent the detective genre. Gone were the hard-nosed gumshoe tactics and gunplay used in noir-inspired private investigator series, replaced by Jim Rockford’s easygoing personality and wit as the main tools used to solve robberies, insurance scams and the like. The show would run for six seasons before Garner’s stunt injuries and financial disputes ended the run, but not without Garner earning a Best Actor Emmy in 1977. In between film roles, Garner would revisit the character several times during the next few decades in made-for-TV movies, as the original show’s growing popularity in re-runs fueled demand for more Jim Rockford tales from a new generation of fans.
Garner’s film career continued alongside his major TV successes for the next 3 decades. Cinematic roles in Victor/Victoria, Murphy's Romance (which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination), Tank, Twilight, Maverick, Space Cowboys, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Notebook were interspersed with appearances in TV movies and series such as “Bret Maverick”, “Man of the People” “Chicago Hope” “First Monday” and “8 Rules for Dating Your Teenage Daughter.” Though he had experienced physical injuries in sports, war and during stunt work and had recovered from quintuple heart bypass in 1998, it wasn’t until suffering a stroke in 2008 that his work slowed.
He is survived by his wife Lois and his daughters Greta and Kimberly. He was preceded in death by his brother Charles in 1985.