Photography: Warner Bros.

Celebrate the beloved actor's birthday by looking back at some of his best westerns.

The late, great James Garner amassed a passel of credits during his 50-plus years in movies and television. In addition to making his mark in Maverick, a 1957 – 62 prime-time attraction, he also appeared in several big-screen westerns. On the occasion of what would have been his 89th birthday, we’re looking back at some of the notable titles:

SHOOT-OUT AT MEDICINE BEND (1957)

Before his breakthrough as Bret Maverick, Garner earned his spurs as a supporting player in this relatively obscure Randolph Scott oater, playing one of three recently discharged cavalry troopers (alongside Scott and Gordon Jones) gunning for a corrupt town boss who sold defective ammunition to settlers. The movie is an uneven mix of broad comedy and brisk action, but it did give Garner an early-career opportunity to crack wise while shooting straight.

DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)

Eager to avoid typecasting, Garner avoided roles in westerns for years after he checked out of Maverick. When he finally did get back in the saddle, he was dead-serious as Jess Remsberg, a former army scout in grim pursuit of the varmint who killed his Indian wife. Capably directed by Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field), the drama costars Bill Travers (Born Free) as an ambitious Cavalry lieutenant, Bibi Andersson as a frontier woman who’s not entirely grateful for being freed from captivity by an Apache tribe, and Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) as the woman’s less-than-supportive husband. But the real scene-stealer is Sidney Poitier, who comes off as the epitome of self-assured cool as a high-stakes gambler and seasoned horse-breaker who doesn’t aim to please.

HOUR OF THE GUN (1967)

Garter went grim and gritty again for director John Sturges’ revisionist western, a semi-sequel to the filmmaker’s earlier, more romanticized Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Long after the legendary 1881 shootout, Wyatt Earp (Garner) and buddy Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) continue to clash with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his murderous flunkies in and around Tombstone, Arizona. For Earp, the peacekeeping process devolves into a personal vendetta after Clanton’s men maim one of his brothers, and kill another. Garner told Sturges biographer Glenn Lovell that he welcomed the chance to portray the iconic lawman as something more ambiguous than an untarnished hero: “I saw [Wyatt Earp] as a vigilante out for revenge. He was a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy. He had no qualms about shooting those boys ... I think the movie’s as accurate on that as any that’s been done.”

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969)

Arguably the most popular and definitely the funniest of Garner’s star vehicles, this slyly amusing western spoof has the actor playing to his strengths as Jason McCullough, a dry-witted drifter who agrees to serve as lawman in a rowdy Wild West town — but only until he earns enough money for his journey to “the last of the frontier country,” way off in Australia. Garner gets strong support from stellar costars Jack Elam, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern and Henry Morgan, all of whom appear to enjoy taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to characters they played perfectly straight in more serious sagebrush sagas. (Joan Hackett of Will Penny is fetchingly daft as the comedy’s gun-toting leading lady.)  And the laugh count is increased exponentially by several wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusions to classics ranging from My Darling Clementine to Rio Bravo. Two years later, Garner and director Burt Kennedy tried to make lightning strike twice with a similarly titled follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter. But it wasn’t a sequel. Or an equal.

SKIN GAME (1971)

Imagine a Bret Maverick with more brass and fewer scruples, and you’re ready for Garner as Quincy Drew, an audaciously amoral con artist who operates a traveling scam in 1857 Missouri and Kansas. Working in tandem with Jason O’Rourke (Louis Gossett Jr.), a New Jersey-born free black man, Quincy fleeces gullible marks with a cynical game plan: First, he sells his “slave” for top dollar; then, he helps Jason escape, so they can repeat their ploy in the next town. The race-conscious humor is sometimes shockingly hilarious, especially when the partners in crime frankly acknowledge the racism that makes their enterprise profitable. “Why can’t I sell you next time?” Jason asks. “Because,” Quincy matter-of-factly replies, “you’re the color they’re buying this year.”

SUNSET (1988)

Garner got a second crack at playing Wyatt Earp in writer-director Blake Edwards’ unwieldy mashup of nostalgic comedy and murder mystery. The set-up seemed promising — Earp is hired as technical advisor for a 1920s Hollywood western starring Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) — and the movie, though lambasted by critics, has more than a few fans. But you couldn’t count Garner among its admirers. ““I hated that movie,” Garner said during a 2004 Cowboys & Indians interview. “Let me tell you something: Blake Edwards wanted to do that picture with Robert Duvall and I. Now just think about that — wouldn’t that have been a whole different picture? But Bruce Willis was not my idea of a western star by any means. He didn’t even know how to wear a hat. He’d pull it way down over his ears. I told him, ‘Bruce, no cowboy does that unless he’s riding a bronco.’ But he didn’t listen. He’d just pull the hat down even more, until his ears stuck out on the sides. And I figured, ‘OK, I’m only going to tell him once ... ’ Bruce really didn’t take his work that seriously at the time. He thought he was a better writer ad-libbing off the top of his head than the writers were. He didn’t pay that much attention to the script.”

MAVERICK (1994)

Director Richard Donner’s big-screen reboot of the enduringly popular TV series boasted Mel Gibson as the satin-vested, smooth-talking Bret Maverick, Jodie Foster as sexy con artist Annabelle Bransford — and Garner himself as a cagy lawman known as Zane Cooper. The action-comedy, scripted by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), is largely engaging and often extremely funny. Once again, however, Garner found himself working opposite an actor whose unpredictability could be unnerving. When he arrived on the set, Garner recalled in The Garner Files, his 2011 memoir, “I thought, What are these people doing? Mel didn’t know his dialogue and we had to improvise a lot. He wouldn’t rehearse, either. He was just running off at the mouth on camera. I thought it was nuts, but Dick Donner [who had worked with Gibson on the Lethal Weapon movies] assured me Mel knew what he was doing. Jodie and I looked at each other and figured we might as well join in. When we got through with it, I’m sure William Goldman didn’t recognize his movie.”

SPACE COWBOYS (2000)

OK, I admit: It isn’t a real western. But Clint Eastwood’s geezer-power comedy-drama about four long-retired test pilots (Eastwood, Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones) who sign on for a space-shuttle mission is a nifty mix of robust humor and white-knuckle excitement. Better still, Space Cowboys offered Eastwood and Garner a welcome opportunity to reteam on screen more than 40 years after Eastwood’s guest-starring stint as a cocky gunslinger on an episode of Maverick. “I had only a small guest shot on his show,” Eastwood told me during location shooting at Johnson Space Center, “and he was very gracious and down to earth, and we got along right away. He's a great guy and a wonderful actor. And even though it took a few decades, I’m glad we were finally able to work together again.”

FOOTNOTE: James Garner often sounded like his own worst critic when it came to appraising his acting ability. But he reserved his sharpest barbs for the lesser movies on his lengthy resume. In addition to trashing Sunset, he dismissed the Disney-produced One Little Indian (1973) as a folly that “could have ended my career,” admired only the Hawaiian scenery in The Castaway Cowboy (1974), and wrote off his half-baked spaghetti western A Man Called Sledge (1970) as “A Man Called Sludge.

On the other hand, Garner spoke highly of two post-Maverick TV productions. He ably assumed the role of former Texas Ranger Woodrow McCall in Streets of Laredo, a respectable 1995 sequel to the epic Lonesome Dove. (He had been cast as Gus McCrae in the original 1989 miniseries, but had to cede the role to Robert Duvall — who costarred opposite Tommy Lee Jones as McCall — when medical issues forced him to drop out of the project.) And he was passionately proud of Nichols (1971 – 72), the short-lived, cult-fave western series in which he played the motorcycle-riding sheriff of a turn-of-the-century Arizona town named after his ancestors.

The cancellation of Nichols after a single season “about broke my heart,” Garner recalled in The Garner Files. Indeed, “I was so angry and disappointed,” he wrote, “I decided to kill Nichols off in the last episode. In the opening sequence, Anthony Zerbe pulls a gun and blows me away. There’s a funeral and they bury me. But I come back as my twin brother, Jim Nichols, to avenge the killing. In the last shot, as I ride out of town on the Harley, the camera pans up to a sign: ‘You Are Now Leaving Nichols.’”

 

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