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Five memorable film roles of James Garner (1928-2014)

James Garner accepts the 2005 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
James Garner accepts the 2005 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

To one generation, James Garner was the smooth-talking poker-playing cowboy who did not have much luck with a gun in Bret Maverick. In another era, he was Jim Rockford, the tough and cynical detective who works cold cases in Los Angeles in The Rockford Files.

While his greatest notoriety was on the small screen, Garner enjoyed a steady film career for more than five decades before his death on July 19 at age 84. He gained little awards attention, but his down-to-earth personality rooted in his Oklahoma roots made her a popular figure on the big screen. He started out playing military characters, including in his 1956 debut Toward the Unknown and co-starring with Marlon Brando in the 1957 Oscar winner Sayonara. Garner also showed a diversity in the types of films he appeared: from romantic comedies (alongside Doris Day in 1963's Move Over, Darling) to epic racing thrillers (John Frankenheimer's 1966 Oscar-winning Grand Prix), from Westerns (as Wyatt Earp in the 1988 film Sunset, co-starring Bruce Willis) to space adventures (the 2000 Clint Eastwood hit Space Cowboys).

Yet these five films showed some of Garner's best work on the big screen, from powerful dramas to outrageous comedies, and even romantic films that landed the actor some of his most significant big screen accolades.

1961: The Children's Hour

Garner was the leading man to the powerhouse duo of Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in director William Wyler's adaptation of Lillian Hellman's controversial play. He portrayed Dr. Joe Carlin, a small town obstetrician who finds himself ensnared in a public scandal when a young girl accuses his fiancee (Hepburn) and a fellow schoolteacher (MacLaine) of being lesbians. Even as the controversy erupts and ruins the teachers, Garner's doctor remains steadfast in his love for Hepburn's fallen woman - all while wondering if the story is actually true. This proved to be Garner's first notable leading role after his stint on Maverick, and would follow with a series of other leading roles throughout the 1960s.

1964: The Americanization of Emily

While he began his film career playing military men, one of Garner's best-known characters in this vein was featured in this romantic dramedy, written by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller - six years before his big success with another romantic hit, Love Story. On the verge of the D-Day invasion, Garner's naval officer Charlie Madison finds himself on duty by an emotionally lost admiral (Melvyn Douglas) - but not before he falls for a British woman (Julie Andrews) who has had her share of loss on the battlefields. Garner said in TV interviews later in life this dark but funny war film was his favorite.

1982: Victor Victoria

Garner re-teamed with Andrews in this 1982 Oscar-winning musical comedy, featuring the talents of director Blake Edwards and the songwriting team of Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse. Andrews starred as a singer down on her luck in Depression-era Paris, when she is rescued by a nightclub performer (Robert Preston) and is transformed into a man impersonating a woman on stage. Her successful act gets the attention of Garner's King Marchand, a Chicago nightclub boss who finds himself smitten - and refuses to believe Victor is truly a man. While Garner does not sing a note of Mancini and Bricusse's score, his tough but humorous portrayal added to the farcical hijinks provided in Edwards' rollicking story.

1985: Murphy's Romance

Of all the films Garner ever appeared in his career, a romantic comedy in which he co-starred with two-time Oscar-winning actor Sally Field would seem the least likely to gain him any awards attention. Yet he received his sole Academy Award nomination for best actor, for his role as the title character, a small town pharmacist who provides support - and potentially more - to a struggling divorced mother (Field). While the publicity for the film mostly surrounded Field and the reunion with her Norma Rae director Martin Ritt, it was Garner's down-home personality that stole the show - and led to his spot as an Oscar nominee. He would ultimately lose to Kiss of the Spider Woman's William Hurt.

2004: The Notebook

While Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling were the leading stars of this adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' romantic novel, it was Garner and his co-star Gena Rowlands who provided the film its pure emotional heartbeat. The story is separated in two periods, with most of it set in the 1940s, where an heiress (McAdams) falls for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (Gosling) - to the dismay of her mother and the young soldier who falls for her. It is chronicled via present-day scenes in a nursing home, where Garner's narrator reads the story from his notebook to Rowlands' character, a woman suffering from memory loss. Garner's portrayal earned him late-career plaudits, including a supporting actor nomination at the 2004 Screen Actors Guild nomination - at the same ceremony in which he would win the group's Life Achievement Award.

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