There are actors who become stars because they’re imposing, powerful, monumental. And then there was James Garner. He was a high school football and basketball player who kept his rugged good looks long into life. But the characters he became famous for, especially TV’s Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, won you over with their minds. They got through trouble with cleverness, charm and subtle wit.
Garner, who died July 19 at age 86, made dozens of films, including The Great Escape and Victor/Victoria, and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Murphy’s Romance (1985). But it was on TV that he really found his sweet spot–and ours. Debuting in 1957, Maverick was about a character ahead of his time in spirit, a forerunner of the roguish antiauthoritarians who would rule movies and TV in the 1970s. Garner’s most famous role, Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, which debuted in 1974, was, like Maverick, a hero who became bigger by being cut down to size. A private detective who’d spent time in jail on a bad rap, always one step ahead of the bill collectors, he was not a pressed suit; he was a rumpled jacket that could use a dry cleaning. And that was what made him wear so comfortably.
This appears in the August 04, 2014 issue of TIME.