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The Best James Garner Movies and TV Shows: Remembering The Hollywood Maverick

He never failed to impress us, whether his roles took him to the Wild West, to the battlefield or to the moon!

It’s hard to find a more likable hero, on or off the screen, than James Garner. When he passed away in 2014 at the age of 86, saddened fans and colleagues were quick to sing his praises. “There are few people on this planet I have adored as much as Jimmy Garner,” said Sally Field, his costar in 1985’s Murphy’s Romance. “I cherish every moment I spent with him and relive them over and over in my head. He was a diamond.” Throughout his 55-plus year career, he truly shined like a diamond in the many James Garner movies and TV shows he appeared in, though the humble actor from Oklahoma — who won two Purple Hearts for his service with the Army National Guard during the Korean War — was never one to seek accolades.

It’s not something that I wanted to achieve, being famous. That never entered my mind. I was just trying to make a living,” he once shared during an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

Still, his Hollywood success was the reward for the years he toiled away at a long list of demanding jobs that didn’t ignite his passion. “I worked the oil fields, I drove trucks, I worked in grocery stores, chicken hatcheries, worked with the telephone company, did a little bit of everything and never found a job I really liked, until I finally got into acting. And it took me about two-and-a-half, three years before I liked that,” he revealed in a chat with Turner Classic Movies.

“Oh, yeah, I’m a maverick. Always been. Which is a bit of a rebel,” he said of himself, and in Hollywood, that also meant spending his life with the one and only woman he ever married, Lois Clark. Their daughter, Gigi, said that her father was not only dedicated and loyal to his family, but also to his career.

For him it wasn’t about the money or the awards. He loved to work; that was his thing. Whatever it was, he was the first one there in the morning,” she shared with Closer Weekly, noting that action roles always held a little something special to the daredevil in him. “Like when he did Grand Prix, he got to do all the driving, He actually learned to be a race car driver and even did his own stunts, like when he caught on fire and things like that,” she noted.

James Garner
James Garner in ‘Maverick’ (1962) Bros. Television

“Comedy, drama. Movies and TV movies. [He] did series when it wasn’t cool and made them iconic,” Rob Lowe said of “James Garner: my hero” upon the legend’s passing. Joe Mantegna, who starred with Garner in the short-lived TV series First Monday in 2002, said, “Working him was the highlight of my life.”

Known for his classic good looks, strong work ethic, and his ability to appeal to both male and female audiences, Garner also had a naturally stealthy sense of humor and humility that he incorporated into many of his roles in James Garner movies and TV shows. “I don’t do horror films,” he once joked after being asked if he’d ever do a nude scene. He also once quipped of his aversion to doing interviews, “I don’t think I’m that interesting,” though his legions of fans would surely disagree.

Read on to find out about the James Garner movies and TV shows that those fans, including us, can’t seem to get enough of.

James Garner TV Shows

Maverick (1957 to 1962)

James Garner
James Garner and Joi Lansing in ‘Maverick’ (1962)

“Maverick didn’t want a gunfight.… He was the reluctant hero, and that really gave us room to poke fun at all the others,” Garner said of his iconic hit series, which eventually became so popular that his sly and witty professional gambler went on to best its tough competition — The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show — in the ratings. A TV movie, 1978’s The New Maverick, and another short-lived series, 1981’s Bret Maverick, followed, as well as a big-screen version starring Mel Gibson. Garner appeared a marshal who is revealed to be Bret’s father.

Nichols (1971)

James Garner in ‘Nichols’; James Garner movies and TV shows
James Garner in ‘Nichols’ (1972) James Garner Movies and TV Bros. Television

“That’s one of my favorites,” Garner said of this one-season series, citing its writing as being top-notch. “It was about a sheriff at the turn of the century when there were no more gunfighters.… A little dinky town, he rode a motorcycle.” It was very funny, he added, “and people loved it, but they canceled it.… and the next year they didn’t have one show on the air that had those kinds of ratings.”

The Rockford Files (1974 to 1980)

James Garner in ‘The Rockford Files’
James Garner in ‘The Rockford Files’ (1975) James Garner Movies and TV ShowsSilver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty

“This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.” The actor won an Emmy in 1977 for his star turn in this hugely popular series about a street-smart P.I. who lives in a Malibu trailer. “The Rockford Files is a terrific show done with style, wit and intelligence. James Garner is equally terrific in the part…and it is his performance that is largely responsible for the success of this show,” The Hollywood Reporter raved during its first season.

Polaroid commercials (late 70s to early 80s)

Garner proved his universal appeal in a series of high-profile commercials for Polaroid cameras and film. “They were quite good,” he humbly noted of the spots he did with Mariette Hartley. “I didn’t need money,” the actor, already a hit on TV and in films, said. “[But] Laurence Olivier was doing commercials, John Wayne did commercials. If they could do them, I could do them,” he figured. Bonus points: He stood up for and pushed for Hartley to get a better deal than she was initially getting for her part in the successful spots.

Decoration Day (1990)

As a grumpy, retired judge who helps get to the bottom of why his estranged childhood friend won’t accept a World War II Medal of Honor, Garner earned a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV. “A lot of my characters are curmudgeons,” the actor admitted.

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

More Golden Globe success came Garner’s way thanks to this TV movie, for which he won Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV. He starred as F. Ross Johnson in the biographical dramatization of the former president and CEO of RJR Nabisco who tried to buy the company.

Streets of Laredo (1995)

In this hit miniseries sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard costarred alongside Garner, who plays Capt. Woodrow Call. “If you’ve forgotten that James Garner is one of the finest actors television has ever produced, Laredo will remind you of it,” Entertainment Weekly said of his pitch-perfect performance.

8 Simple Rules (2003 to 2005)

After series star John Ritter’s shocking death, Garner was brought in for some male star power on this ABC sitcom. “He grounded us and added a sense of love. And he was like a big, cuddly bear,” Amy Davidson, who played one of the sitcom’s daughters, said.

James Garner Movies

Sayonara (1957)

Marlon Brando headlined this film set during the Korean War, an event the then-young Garner knew plenty about. For his early role as Marine Captain Mike Bailey, Garner was named Most Promising Newcomer at the Golden Globes, while costars Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki earned Oscars for theirs.

The Children’s Hour (1961)

“First time I ever cried on screen. Might’ve been the last time,” Garner shared of his role in this Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn-led adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play. In it, he plays the fiancee of Hepburn’s character, a woman who is accused of having an affair with the friend (MacLaine) with whom she runs a boarding school.

The Great Escape (1963)

“Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set,” Garner wrote in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files, about film lead Steve McQueen. “Steve wasn’t a bad guy. I think he was just insecure,” added the actor, who plays Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley, aka the Scrounger, one of the Allied prisoners trying to flee a German camp in this taut World War II adventure drama.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Garner, as Lt. Commander Charles Madison, is romancing a British beauty (Julie Andrews) when he’s told he has to set off on a dangerous mission to Normandy in this WWII film, which had its work cut out for itself at theaters, as it came out during the Vietnam War. “Audiences have come around to it, and it’s now a cult favorite and a minor classic. Unfortunately, it hasn’t put war out of style,” Garner wrote in his memoir about the anti-war film, which he frequently cited as his favorite role.

Grand Prix (1966)

“When starring in Grand Prix, the people around F1 said he had the talent to be a pro driver,” praised Ron Howard upon Garner’s death. “I did all my own driving.… the other actors weren’t so gung ho,” the legend noted of the fun he had working on this Formula One themed racing film, which costarred Eva Marie Saint.

Victor/Victoria (1982)

“Jim will never know how many times I copied his moves in order to learn how to act like a man,” Julie Andrews wrote of re-teaming with Garner after they’d starred together in The Americanization of Emily. “In Emily, we were young. It was intoxicating stuff — pure fun. Victor/Victoria happened some fifteen years later. We were more secure in ourselves, and there was security in working together.” Rotten Tomatoes promises this “musical gender-bender is sharp, funny and all-round entertaining.”

Murphy’s Romance (1985)

As the titular Murphy, Garner stars as an older pharmacist who proves to be the unlikely love interest of a divorced single mom (Sally Field). “Garner plays this character in more or less his usual acting style, but he has been given such quietly off-beat dialogue by the screenwriters…that he comes across as a true original,” critic Roger Ebert said, and the role earned the legendary actor the one and only Academy Award nomination of his career.

Space Cowboys (2000)

“It’s a rare pleasure to watch four terrific actors having the time of their lives,” said Rolling Stone of this film’s out-of-this-world cast. Garner, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland all play retired pilots called back into action to help with a failing satellite. “That was 250 years of ass sitting in front of you. My wife died laughing,” Sutherland quipped to Entertainment Weekly of a scene that showed the veteran actors all getting a medical checkup with their bare backsides facing the camera.

The Notebook (2004)

For his role as Duke in this romantic Nicholas Sparks tearjerker, Garner won raves — and audiences’ hearts — as the man who devotedly cares for and reads to the love of his life (Gena Rowlands), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. “We always said, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to find a picture to do,’ and when this came up, I wasn’t going to pass,” Garner said of his career-long desire to work with Rowlands. He graciously credited the power of the powerful scene in which Duke breaks down crying at the nursing home to his costar, telling The Oklahoman that he was simply reacting to how Rowlands played it. “She’s never given a bad performance,” he raved.

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