LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor James Garner, best known for his prime-time television roles as the wisecracking frontier gambler on “Maverick” and as an ex-con turned private eye on “The Rockford Files,” has died at age 86, Los Angeles police confirmed early on Sunday.
Garner, who built a six-decade career playing ruggedly charming, good-natured anti-heroes and received the highest honor of the Screen Actors Guild in 2004, was found dead from natural causes on Saturday night at his Los Angeles home, according to police.
There were no further details immediately available on the circumstances of his death. Garner underwent surgery for a stroke in 2008, two years after appearing in his last big-screen role as a wealthy grandfather for a film adaptation of the best-selling book “The Ultimate Gift”.
An Oklahoma native, Garner entered show business in the 1950s after serving in the Korean War and first rose to fame on the TV western “Maverick,” a sardonic alternative to the more serious frontier shows then popular on American prime time.
He was Bret Maverick, a cardsharp and ladies man who got by on his wits instead of a six-gun and would just as soon duck a fight as face a showdown. Co-star Jack Kelly played his more straight-laced brother, Bart.
Garner left the ABC show in 1960 in a contract dispute with producers but brought his “Maverick”-like alter ego to a series of films, including “Thrill of It All,” “Move Over, Darling,” ”The Great Escape” and ”Support Your Local Sheriff!”
Garner once said his screen persona as an easy-going guy smart enough to steer clear of a fight actually ran only so deep.
”At times it’s like me, but I used to have this temper,” he told Reuters in a 2004 interview. ”I used to get in a fight in a heartbeat. But that was many years ago.”
With his wry, low-key presence, good looks and thick dark hair, Garner was hailed by some as Hollywood’s next Clark Gable or Cary Grant.
But he ended up scoring his next big hit on the small screen in the 1970s, starring as canny private detective Jim Rockford, a wrongly accused ex-convict starting life over in a beachfront trailer home, on ”The Rockford Files.”
The show ran on NBC from 1974 until Garner abruptly quit the series in 1980. He reprised Rockford for several TV movies in the late 1990s.
The role earned Garner an Emmy Award in 1977. He received his sole Oscar nomination for his work opposite Sally Field in the 1985 feature comedy ”Murphy’s Romance.”
Garner said his favorite role was as the cowardly U.S. soldier who falls for Julie Andrews before being sent on a dangerous wartime mission in the 1964 film “The Americanization of Emily.”
He teamed up with Andrews again in the 1982 film ”Victor/Victoria.”
He returned to the big screen in 2000 in Clint Eastwood’s astronaut adventure “Space Cowboys” and two years later in ”Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
In a spate of late-career TV work, Garner played a recurring role as a hospital chief executive on “Chicago Hope” in 2000 and starred as a conservative Supreme Court chief justice in the short-lived 2002 series ”First Monday.”
In 2003, he joined the cast of the ABC sitcom ”8 Simple Rules,” playing a grandfather after the untimely death of series star John Ritter.
The following year, Garner showed off his big-screen acting chops again, starring opposite Gena Rowlands as the devoted elderly husband of an Alzheimer’s disease sufferer in Nick Cassavetes’ adaptation of the bestseller “The Notebook.”
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Raissa Kasolowsky