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Happy Trails, James Garner

The beef industry has had a number of prominent pitchmen since the checkoff was initiated a quarter-century ago. Most have been a success in drawing consumer attention to the beef story – Sam Elliott, Robert Mitchum and James Garner come to mind. And there was at least one fumble – model/actress Cybil Shepherd. After pocketing a tidy sum to promote beef, Shepherd claimed in a woman’s magazine that one of her beauty secrets was not eating red meat.

Last October, we asked readers to weigh in, via our weekly online poll, regarding their favorite beef spokesperson. Among the choices were Garner, Elliott, Mitchum, and actors Mathew McConaughey, Claude Akins and Garrett Hedlund. Elliott won the poll hands down, claiming 81% of the 119 responses, while Mitchum and Garner tied with eight votes apiece. McConaughey garnered five points, Akins just one and Hedlund didn’t get a single nod.

My favorite, however, was Garner, the charming and versatile actor who passed away last weekend at the age of 86. I didn’t know much about him personally but I liked the persona he’d cultivated in the previous 20-30 years in television and movies. As a kid growing up in the ’60s, the western comedy “Maverick” was one of my favorite shows. Garner played a dashing and likable western gambler named Bret Maverick who got himself into weekly scrapes. Each episode usually involved Maverick facing some kind of ethical choice, and he always took the high road.

He followed that up with roles in movies like “The Great Escape” and the "Americanization Of Emily," then another big TV series in the ’70s, “The Rockford Files,” in which he played Jim Rockford, an ex-con private investigator. It's regarded as one of the top series in television history and you can still see the show in syndication on almost a daily basis. Garner was also widely known for his advertising work. Along with his work fo the beef industry, he was part of a long-running ad series with actress Mariette Hartley for Polaroid. The pair did it so well that many people thought they were married in real life.

I’ve read a couple of the obituary reports since he died on Saturday from natural causes, and learned his real-life persona didn’t wander much from his on-screen characters – he was modest, humble and sensible. Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, OK, Garner was the youngest of three children. His mother died when Garner was five years old and the family was pretty much in turmoil after that, with Garner striking out on his own at 14 and joining the U.S. Merchant Marine at 16. His sea career didn’t last long, however, as he had problems with seasickness.

He never graduated from high school, but eventually earned his diploma in the U.S. Army, reportedly being the first Oklahoman to be drafted by the Army for service in Korea, where he was wounded twice. Back in the U.S, he was casting about working odd jobs and searching for his path when he was persuaded by a friend in 1954 to take a non-speaking role in a Broadway play. There, he says, he picked up the acting craft by watching experienced actors like Henry Fonda night after night.

Garner says he wasn’t interested in acting, because he was too shy and introverted. “I wouldn’t do it. I just wasn’t interested. And then, I don’t know, one day I got tired of laying carpets. And a guy offered me a job and I took it,” he once told a reporter.

In one interview, Garner said he’d never chased the heights of celebrity because when you’re at the top there’s nothing else to shoot for. He was all about building for the long term and that was the kind of career he was able to accomplish in a lengthy and remarkable career that included more than 50 movies and two hit TV series. Through it all, he never forgot Norman, OK, and he retained a kind, homespun demeanor throughout a successful career and life untouched by scandal. He and his wife were married for almost 57 years and he leaves behind his widow and two daughters, Kimberly and Gigi.

The more I learned about Garner personally, the more I realized what a tremendous spokesman he was for the beef industry, and how much he shared the values of our industry. Reportedly, he was once offered a role in the original “Rambo” film, but he turned it down, just as he did all violent or dirty roles throughout his career.

"I'm no do-gooder," Garner wrote in his memoir, “The Garner Files.” “I just like to do good movies. I consider myself an average American and I think I have a duty to other average Americans."

Garner played the long game in his career, just as cattle producers do in their quest for sustainability. He was said to be a loyal and generous friend, amiable to all, a man's man, and not afraid to take on the powers if he felt wronged; he was a man who loved his family and appreciated the importance of a man's word. One associate described him as “comfortable in his own skin,” a man who demonstrated “American can-do masculinity and common decency.” I think that describes cattle producers, too.


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