Actor James Garner’s passing last weekend at age 86 brought new attention to his incredible body of work spanning half a century in Hollywood; his death also brings to mind Henry J. Kaiser’s bold foray into television.
In 1957, Kaiser bankrolled Garner’s star vehicle “Maverick,” a hugely popular television program. The largely unknown Garner played the amiable gambler Bret Maverick, a role that made him famous.
“Maverick” aired on Sunday evening prime time from 1957 to 1962 on the ABC network under the lone sponsorship of Kaiser Aluminum. The show, broadcast during the “Kaiser Aluminum Hour,” was an overnight sensation and the number-one-rated show in America for several seasons.
Henry J. Kaiser could not have been more pleased. He had taken a big gamble on “Maverick”. The single sponsorship network contract ran $7 million, a big commitment of advertising dollars for Kaiser Aluminum in 1957.
Kaiser polled his managers on the idea of underwriting a Sunday night TV western. There were 31 votes against and one in favor, Kaiser himself.
But Kaiser followed his own lights, as readers of these pages know. He was the first industrialist to champion employer-sponsored health care. He expanded roles for women in the workforce, and opened societal fissures for the pursuit of civil and equal rights.
Throughout his career, Garner moved smoothly from TV to movies and back again. He appeared in more than 50 films, including “The Children’s Hour” (1961) with Audrey Hepburn and “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) with Julie Andrews.
Garner also will be remembered as the bedeviled ex-con turned detective, Jim Rockford, in the long running series, “The Rockford Files,” in the 1970s. For more on his career see the remembrance in The New York Times.
It is not surprising then that Kaiser quickly took to Garner’s easy-going onscreen personality. The two men enjoyed each other’s company and Garner visited Kaiser at home in Lake Tahoe and in Hawaii.
So when you think fondly of the acting genius of James Garner — from his romantic scenes with Audrey Hepburn to his car chases in “Rockford Files” — recall that Henry J. Kaiser financed his first big break.