Before there was George Clooney, there was James Garner

Before there was George Clooney, there was James GarnerBefore there was George Clooney, there was James Garner.

The laid-back, affable actor died July 19 at his Los Angeles home. He was 86.

Best known for roles in TV’s “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” and movies like “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Victor/Victoria” and an Oscar-nominated role in “Murphy’s Romance,” Garner was most proud of being an Oklahoman.

I was lucky enough to meet and interview him several times and can truthfully say I have never met anyone who didn’t like him.

Around here, most everyone has some kind of Jim Garner story to tell and I have my share.

My late mother-in-law, Vida Mathey, grew up friends with Betty Bumgarner, Jim’s cousin, who lived next door to the cute young man who shared the same last name.

He’d come outside sometimes and flirt with the slightly younger Betty and Vida, whose nickname was “Pinky” for her pale skin and red hair. He attended Norman High School at the time, the place where the girls graduated.

Years later, Vida would be in charge of her high school reunions, and Jim would often come, even after he changed his name from Bumgarner to the marquee-friendly Garner.

My husband met the actor one year when he returned to Norman for a reunion. Kevin, then a young actor himself, remembered the warm welcome he got from the movie star.

“He walked by, and my mom stopped him,” Kevin recalled. “He called my mother Pinky and shook my hand. When my mother told him I was an actor too, he asked if he would have seen me in anything. I was doing local theater at the time, so the answer was no.”

I didn’t meet him until years later, when I was working for The Oklahoman.

He stood me up for a phone interview in 1996, when he was being honored at what is now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I waited. No phone call.

The next day his publicist explained he had been at the dentist getting a root canal.

When he came to the event and I introduced myself to him, he gave me a big hug and apologized.

What a guy.

When he endowed a chair at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Drama, he told me tales of high school pranks, including stealing a peanut machine out of a dime store on a dare. He did it, but returned it before it was noticed.

I interviewed him for several movies, the last time for “The Notebook,” one of his favorites.

By then, the handsome man was showing his age, and years of doing his own stunts had left him riddled with arthritis. He was using a cane to get around, but so was I.

We struck up a conversation about our aches and pains and he confessed he had two artificial knees and some back problems.

I think my favorite story he told me was about a much earlier return to the Sooner State.

He was being honored in Oklahoma City in 1960, when he was best known for playing Bret Maverick.

A limousine and a police escort were waiting for Jim and his wife Lois.

Riding into the city with the police riding in front of his limo, he told his wife that when he left Oklahoma City as a teen, the police were behind him.

It’s hard to realize he’ll never return to the city and the state he called home.

I’ll miss him.

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