Of mixed European ancestry with a dominant American Cherokee Indian strain, Garner was born in Norman, Oklahoma to Weldon and Mildred Bumgarner. He had two brothers: Jack, an actor and golf pro who lives in Los Angeles, and Charles, a schoolteacher who lives in Norman. Their mother died when James was five. Eleven years later, while still in high school, he joined the Merchant Marines. He completed high school during basic training, then fought in Korea as a non-commissioned officer and was awarded two Purple Hearts during his 14-month tour of duty. After his military discharge he resumed his education on the G.I. bill at Oklahoma University.
His father, meanwhile, had moved to Los Angeles and Jim eventually went there to work for his dad as a carpet layer. He became an actor by accident.
“I was looking for a better job,” he said. "I had been down to Shell Oil Company, and as I was driving back there was an empty parking place in front of a building where a guy I used to know had an office. His name was Paul Gregory. I was a gas jockey when I knew him, and he was a soda jerk, but he had become a producer. I went in and he offered me a job in ‘The Caine Mutiny Court Martial’ and I took it and I’ve been an actor ever since.”
After 512 performances in New York and on tour, Garner graduated from minor parts to the role of Lt. Steve Maryk vacated by the late John Kodiak, and his portrayal led to a Warner Brothers contract in 1955. He began there with villainous roles in five “Cheyenne” episodes opposite Clint Walker, and a movie debut in “Toward the Unknown.”
The following year his career began to rocket. On the strength of his performance as Marlon Brando’s buddy in “Sayonara,” he was signed to star in a TV series, “Maverick,” destined to become one of the highest rated programs on the air.
Since then, Garner appeared in over 50 major motion pictures including “The Children’s Hour,” “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Grand Prix,” “Support Your Local Sheriff,” "Victor/Victoria," "Space Cowboys," "The Notebook," and "Murphy's Romance," for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
Garner passed away in 2014, survived by his wife of almost 58 years, Lois, and two daughters, Greta and Kimberly.