In 2014 James Garner sadly passed away at the age of 86. But the veteran actor had lived a pretty amazing life as a star of the silver screen, making his mark on movies such as The Great Escape and The Notebook. And when Garner died, he also left behind a loving family – including daughter Gigi. Gigi has since gone on to honor her father, in fact, and the way in which she has paid tribute to Garner may just touch your heart.
Gigi’s mom, meanwhile, is Lois Clarke, whom Garner had first encountered at a party in 1956. Rather incredibly, the couple tied the knot just two weeks on from that initial meeting, with the pair going on to remain together for the rest of Garner’s life. And Garner and his wife raised two children: Kim, who was Clarke’s child from a former relationship, and Greta – who now, of course, goes by Gigi.
It appears that Garner was a great father, too – at least according to Gigi. Speaking about her parent to Closer magazine in 2018, she explained, “He made a concentrated effort to stay connected to me no matter where he was. My dad was just a good guy – the guy with the white hat.” And Gigi has since made an effort to keep Garner’s memory alive through a gesture that neatly touches on one heartwarming aspect of the actor’s private life.
Garner was not particularly someone who chose to court the spotlight off camera, but he nevertheless divulged certain personal details to the public over the years. The star revealed in his 2011 autobiography The Garner Files, for example, that his mother had tragically died when he had been just a child.
In the book, Garner said that once he had been old enough to understand, he had been told by a family member that his mother had died following a failed abortion. The star added, however, “I have no idea whether my father was involved in the decision to have the abortion or whether he blamed himself for her death. We never talked about it in the family.”
Garner’s father remarried on a number of occasions, too, and the actor would go on to claim that one of his stepmothers had abused him. A woman called Wilma had allegedly proceeded to beat the children in the household on a regular basis until the young Garner finally stood up to her. Wilma came close to killing him, Garner said, but he won the fight – and according to the star, he never saw his stepmom again after that.
Garner’s early life shaped his future career, in fact. He wrote in The Garner Files, “I’ve been on the wrong end of violence, and I’ve done violence myself… I refuse to glorify violence in my movie and television roles.” It should be noted, too, that Garner not only survived an abusive childhood, but he also fought in a major conflict. In 1950, you see, he was called up to the Korean War.
During the war, Garner served as a rifleman for the 5th Regimental Combat Team. And after being hit in the face by shrapnel, he ultimately received a Purple Heart. A second injury would land him another such medal, too – although he wasn’t actually handed that further honor until 1983.
Then, following his military service, Garner began on the path that would ultimately make him a household name. In 1954 he took a small part in Broadway show The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, where he learned acting techniques by watching star Henry Fonda. And a few years after that – with some TV commercials under his belt – the rising star started working in film and on television shows.
In 1956 Garner made two appearances on the big screen in The Girl He Left Behind and Toward the Unknown. It would be his performance in the TV series Conflict, however, that led producer Roy Huggins to pick him to play the eponymous character in a new show called Maverick. And as luck would have it, Maverick would catapult Garner to fame.
During this period, moreover, Garner became a married man. In 1956 he ran into Lois Clarke at a party and was very taken with her – so taken, in fact, that he married her a mere 14 days later. And to begin with, there were few clues that the union would last.
Garner’s family didn’t want him to marry Clarke, either, as she was Jewish; the actor himself, on the other hand, was Methodist. Yet in his autobiography, Garner noted that neither of the couple were religious anyway. He said, “[Religion] wasn’t an issue – at least not for Lois and me. None of the naysayers had stopped to consider that Lois and I complemented each other. What they saw as weaknesses, we saw as strengths.”
Then, two years after the marriage had taken place, Clarke gave birth to Garner’s first and only biological daughter, Gigi. At around the same time, Garner also legally adopted Kim. Neither child has followed in their father’s footsteps, though; Kim would grow up to become a Los Angeles teacher, while Gigi has embarked on a career as a Nashville country singer.
Meanwhile, after Maverick, Garner began starring in high-profile movies alongside the biggest actors of the era. Throughout the 1960s, he took parts in The Children’s Hour alongside Audrey Hepburn, The Thrill of It All alongside Doris Day and the Steve McQueen vehicle The Great Escape, among plenty of others.
And while attempts to later reboot Maverick ultimately proved unsuccessful, Garner did just fine as a movie star. In 1986 he even earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for his part in the Sally Field film Murphy’s Romance.
There was then a big-screen Maverick movie in 1994, starring Mel Gibson as the title character and Garner as his dad. The actor would add more movies and TV shows – such as Chicago Hope – to his extensive filmography during the decade, too. But along the way, Garner was suffering from various health problems.
Unfortunately, Garner had also shown some apprehension about medical intervention. In 1988, for example, he had needed quintuple bypass surgery, but he waited on the procedure for close to half a year until his own blood could be used for a transfusion. Reportedly, this was because he had a fear of catching HIV/AIDS.
And Garner also had severe problems with his knees. While he was filming The Rockford Files during the 1970s, in fact, he underwent at least six operations to fix these issues. In the end, then, Garner’s condition was a contributing factor in The Rockford Files’ cancelation, although the show’s low ratings hardly helped matters.
In addition, Garner had performed a lot of his own stunts for The Rockford Files, and these had taken a major toll on his health. Injuries from his military days began acting up again to boot, while in 1979 the actor was even hospitalized with an ulcer. Garner finally received knee replacements in 2000, however, after which he resumed his screen career.
Throughout the 2000s, moreover, Garner took on two of the roles for which he’s best known today: Grandpa Jim in 8 Simple Rules and old Noah Calhoun in The Notebook. And the veteran star’s performance in the romantic drama earned him yet another awards nod, with the Screen Actors Guild seeing fit to nominate him in the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role category.
Perhaps The Notebook’s story of enduring romance resonated for Garner, though. He told People in 2005, “Ryan Gosling said [that] he didn’t believe in love at first sight and loving somebody that long. And I said, ‘I’ve been married 47 years, and it seems to work.’ I only knew my wife two weeks before I married her. We’re both devoted to each other. We’ll be there for each other forever.”
Garner and Clarke remained together, then, after he suffered a stroke in 2008. The star did a few more roles after the health scare, too, and published his autobiography in 2011. But in July 2014 emergency services were called to Garner’s home – and by the time they arrived, it was sadly too late.
Garner had been 86 years of age when he passed away, with the cause of death later explained to be “acute myocardial infarction” – or a heart attack. And according to a document obtained by celebrity gossip site TMZ, the movie star had actually been privately fighting coronary artery disease for a while.
Then after news of Garner’s death traveled around the world, tributes poured in, with many of the screen legend’s former co-stars revealing their sadness at his passing. Tom Selleck, who had appeared alongside Garner in The Rockford Files, honored the late actor by saying, “Jim was a mentor to me and a friend, and I will miss him.”
And Kaley Cuoco – Garner’s friend and co-star in 8 Simple Rules – wrote touchingly on Instagram, “I woke up with a broken heart today. The world has lost a legend. James Garner was a gift to our business and an example of honesty and pure class. It was an honor to have worked beside him and receive his bear hugs every day. I love you, gramps.”
Then four years after Garner’s death, his younger daughter Gigi spoke to Closer about the fondest memories that she had of her dad. There, she revealed, “My friends adored [my father], too, and not because he was some big Hollywood star but because I had the most fun dad. If I wanted to jump off the balcony into the pool, he would do it first just to make sure it was safe.”
But Gigi’s memorializing of her beloved father didn’t end with that conversation. In 2019, you see, the singer made a special announcement: she would be launching an initiative called the James Garner Animal Rescue Fund in honor of the movie star. Unbeknown to many, Garner had loved animals – especially dogs.
Dogs had featured prominently in Garner’s life, in fact, and Gigi told USA Today all about it in June 2019. She explained of her father, “He rescued dogs and was a huge animal lover. There wasn’t a dog or a baby that my dad did not want to meet. And I’ve been rescuing dogs for three decades. This seemed like a good fit to honor his legacy.”
Gigi recalled all the dogs that her father had taken under his wing, too. His first canine companion had been called Ginger, with Garner having adopted the animal during his difficult childhood. And while not many photos are available of the actor during that time, one that Gigi possesses shows the then-11-year-old Garner with the dog.
Gigi also told USA Today that during her own childhood, her father had gone to the home of In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison and come back with a dog. She added, “There was a whole litter, and my father picked one and took it home. He named it Cherokee after his production studio.” Interestingly, Garner was one-quarter native Cherokee himself.
Dogs had helped Garner during difficult times, too. In the late 1990s the actor had decided to quit smoking, as doctors had advised as much following his quintuple bypass heart surgery years earlier. And while it took Garner 17 years to give up his habit, he eventually did so with the assistance of a canine helper.
In order to cut himself off from cigarettes entirely, you see, Garner went to the desert in a camper van. Along the way, though, he made a new friend: an abandoned and hungry dog. And Gigi has claimed that Garner took the animal’s appearance as a sign. She told USA Today, “[Garner’s] in the middle of nowhere in the desert, [then he] opens the camper door and there’s this dog. He fed and washed him and named him Nicky.” Naturally, Nicky was short for “nicotine.”
Gigi added that while Garner’s life had become more difficult after his stroke, he was nevertheless assisted during his final years by his Australian Silky Terriers Bret, Belle and Beau. The actor’s daughter claimed, “[Garner’s state] was hard to explain to people, [as] they expected him to always be the guy in The Rockford Files. But he was not in great shape in the end. His dogs were with him and were a great comfort.”
Before Garner died, moreover, Gigi went to visit him with her own two dogs, Angel and Rocky, who were named after characters from The Rockford Files. And during one of the last times that Gigi saw her dad, she told USA Today, Rocky walked up to Garner and put his paws out to be petted.
Of this poignant moment, Gigi told USA Today, “Rocky knew my dad was not well and just stayed there close so he could pet him.” What’s more, Garner’s daughter would elaborate on what her new foundation would do: raise money for adoptions, shelters and rescues. And Gigi herself knew the ropes, as she’d worked with animals for 30 years.
While talking to Gigi, however, the USA Today interviewer brought up the fact that Garner had never had a memorial service or public funeral. And although this may seem unusual for such a legendary actor, his daughter explained exactly why that had been the case. She said, “[Garner] didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him. The way he asked people to remember him was with a smile.”
The James Garner Animal Rescue Fund’s official website mentions this aspect of Garner’s life and death, too. Of the actor, the site says, “There was also no charitable foundation set up in his name, and it took a while for his daughter, Gigi Garner, to finally figure out how she wanted to genuinely honor his legacy.”
The foundation’s website continues, “In addition to taking over his brand and production company, Cherokee Productions, [Gigi] would like to keep [Garner’s] name relevant and hopes that his fans will never forget him.” Many photographs of Garner and his beloved dogs – as well as Gigi’s own pets – also decorate the site.
Plus, Gigi launched the foundation on a date close to both the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death and Father’s Day. This was appropriate, as the charity was both for “any dog in need” and for her father, Gigi said. She added, “It’s important to carry on with the work and do it in my dad’s honor. I think he’d be proud.”
The foundation website describes Garner, then, as a “Hollywood icon and humanitarian.” Indeed, Garner gave lots of money to good causes throughout his life – and that’s clearly inspired his daughter. The James Garner Animal Rescue Fund’s official site says of Gigi, in fact, “She believes in sticking up for the underdog – just like her father did.”