05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
"I found out in second grade that there was always somebody a lot tougher than me," James Garner once said, and he never forgot. On Maverick, his pappy sent him into the world with a thousand-dollar bill and a handful of worn apothegms about poker playing—"Never hold a kicker" and "Never draw to an inside straight." As dandified lawman Bret Maverick in the late '50s, he combined that modest inheritance with a cleft chin, a quick mind, a wicked wardrobe and a shield of diffidence, and carried every day narrowly. He mesmerized audiences for three years with his Concerto in Me Minor: Git along, never fall in love and don't look for trouble until the real thing comes along. Fourteen years later he jumped a century to turn into Jim Rockford, a detective who wouldn't dream of telling you all he knew; The Rockford Files ran six years. For icing, there were the Polaroid commercials: Sparring with Mariette Hartley, he got the worst of it every time and always came out a winner.
It all seems so easy. On TV, where he is most himself, Garner could give relaxation lessons to Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, probably has in fact, yet he maintains an air of integrity as effortlessly as though bedrock were made of feathers. Alone among TV leading men, he can play irony comfortably, and he will always fool you. Wait for him to turn on the heat, and he gets too tired to kiss his date, figure him to walk, and he stays the night. Threaten him, and he might shrug it off; take liberties, he'll nail you. No other star so beguiles with self-deprecation. He may be the quintessential TV actor.
It did not start out easy back in Oklahoma. James Bumgarner was 5 when his mother died, leaving three small sons and a husband who fell apart. "He was a rake," Garner has recollected. "And he drank a lot. He'd come home bombed and make us sing to him or get a whipping." Jim began as a model, earned a couple of Purple Hearts in Korea, then got a nonspeaking role as a judge in Broadway's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Its star was Henry Fonda, and Garner took his first acting lessons by watching the master from the bench.
He also quick-studied marriage: He has been wed to the same woman for over 30 years. The underdog is his favorite animal, and he can be as stubborn as his characters. Garner has twice risked his career by suing studios for what he deemed his fair share of Maverick and Rockford profits. "Jim is part Cherokee," says producer Stephen Cannell. "At some point, if you push him too far, he is going to call you out."
Today, at 60, Garner shoots an occasional movie and lots of golf. He downplays his several ailments. Likewise last year's coronary bypass surgery. From time to time, he has confessed, "I get depressed. Very." But when asked how he wants to be remembered, he once said, "with a smile." Comes to that, he's holding a royal flush.