More than 'Maverick': James Garner and the forgotten Purple Heart

James Garner

Actor James Garner smiles as he holds up a Purple Heart presented to him in a ceremony in 1983. Garner was wounded in April 1951 in Korea, but his medal was never presented to him. (Lennox McLendon/AP)

A recent USA Today appreciation for James Garner, the iconic actor who died Saturday at age 86, called him “the epitome of the reluctant hero.”

The examples cited involve Garner’s on-screen choices and characters as well as his off-screen battles with studios. But before all that — before a career that spanned from Maverick to The Rockford Files to … well, to Maverick, and plenty of stops in between — Garner was in Korea, quite literally trying to avoid getting his ass shot to pieces.

Then-Pvt. James Bumgarner received his second wound during his time in Korea (multiple obituaries say he was the first Oklahoman drafted during that war) on April 23, 1951, while serving with the 24th Division, according to 30-plus-year-old Associated Press article.

He described the injury to the AP thusly: “As a matter of fact, I got it in the backside. I went into a foxhole headfirst and I was a little late. There’s a lot of room for error with a wound in the rear. It’s a wide target.”

The posterior puncture was the second wound Garner suffered during service; his obituaries list him as earning two Purple Hearts. The medal for the foxhole incident came three decades after the war, with the Army reportedly making the presentation after Garner mentioned never receiving it during a TV interview.

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 31:  Actor James Garner portrait session at the Walt Disney Studios January 31, 2005 in Burbank, California. James Garner has been named the 41st Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award honoree.  (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

James Garner poses for a portrait in 2005, before receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. (Getty Images photo by Mark Mainz)

He was, at the time, promoting one of many military-themed projects of his long career — the early-80s comedy “Tank.” A New York Times film reviewer wrote that the movie’s “screenplay wobbles uncertainly between sadistic melodrama and populist farce,” showing that, if nothing else, NYT writers probably got paid by the syllable in the 1980s.

A better-known military role for Garner was alongside Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” He also played an aging bomber pilot-turned-preacher-turned-astronaut in 2000’s “Space Cowboys” and played the leader of the 1st Ranger Battalion during World War II — an early big-screen starring role — in 1958’s “Darby’s Rangers.”

His view on real-life military service came through fairly clearly in the AP report: “Do I have fond memories? I guess if you get together with some buddies it’s fond. But it really wasn’t. It was cold and hard. I was one of the lucky ones.”


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  1. So sad. Loved his acting, I’ll remember him as a very versatile actor, handsome and charming, who will definitely be missed. James Garner. You made the world a better place. I wish that somehow the younger brattier members of the entertainment world could be trained in class, ethics, and integrity by this man. I wish his family peace and you sir, are a Legend. Hope you RIP.

  2. Karl H. Stephan, US Army Retired on

    As a young soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, we watched you as Maverick on black and white television.
    Loved your performance. In The Rockford Files, your
    Pontiac was something special. It inspired me to own
    one in later years. You will be missed, by the older
    generation, for sure. James Garmer RIO.

  3. One of the last of the Hollywood Patriots of yore; men like Charles Durning, Clark Gable, Lee Marvin, and Eddie Albert. May he rest in peace.

    Steve Mott, Col, USAF (ret)

  4. He made acting look easy and real, effortless even though I know it wasn’t. His talent let the viewer ride along with him as a observer within the story. This is hard to do consistently yet Garner was so good that every smart, cynical, funny or sad retort he made seemed to come from within him and not just written dialog. He should have been highly recognized for his work, which were far better than many that were rewarded for others less talented. I miss him as I would a family member. One of his last cameo parts in The Ultimate Life lives in memory as does The Notebookbut the body of his work in Maverick and as Jim Rockford will play forever. Having seen every episode, I watch them again and again because they are better than anything on television NOW!
    . He lived and made an impression on so many of us!

  5. You were a man of dignity. Loyalty. I was hoping you would play the older character in my screenplay “Angels Fallen” but time beat me. I salute you brother.

  6. I met James Garner when they were filming the episode entitled “The Bees The Trees And TT Flowers”. It was my favorite show and he was (is) my favorite actor. To get to meet this man when I was 13 was a dream come true. He autographed my arm, he autographed a piece of paper- he was great. He talked to all the fans. A couple hundred of them!This is a huge loss! Miss and love you Mr. Garner!

  7. Linda McIntyre on

    I grew up with the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gunsmoke, Maverick and all those other guys. Loved them all.
    Miss them all. Their pictures, with a lot of others – Clint Eastwood, Hop-a-long, Tom Selleck, etc. – hang in the ‘Family Room’ because that’s who they are – family.

  8. Too bad actors in Hollywood today do not follow James (Bum)Garner’s lead, by being a class act, a gentleman, and devoted family man and hero.

    The best actor ever.

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