James Garner, Maverick

Question: Help! Many years ago there was a TV program called Maverick, which was about two brothers, Bret and Bart. One was played by James Garner and the other by...? It's driving us nuts. Please try to help. I can see his face, but not his name. Thanks.


Answer: Don't get too down about it, Irwin. The late Jack Kelly, often called "the other Maverick" while the series was on the air, seemed destined to play second banana to one star or another throughout his entertainment career. But to his credit, he had as good an attitude about it as anyone in the business.

Kelly started off his career at the age of 2 weeks, modeling for an Ivory Soap ad. But his early acting years were spent in the shadow of older sister Nancy, who won Tony for the play The Bad Seed and an Oscar nomination for the movie version. Known at the time as "Nancy Kelly's brother," he went on to star as Dr. Parris Mitchell on ABC's Kings Row (a rotating show that was part of Warner Bros. Presents) in the fall of 1955, which was canceled out from under him four months later.

So he was happy to get the role of gambler Bart Maverick in 1957, particularly since there wasn't meant to be a Bart when the show first launched on ABC in September 1957. The producers had found themselves a hot young unknown in star James Garner, but they couldn't crank out episodes fast enough. So they decided to create a brother for dapper gambler Bret. They cast Kelly and had two production crews shoot them separately so episodes could focus on one brother or the other. (Stories only occasionally featured both brothers together.)

A two-star setup like that might spell disaster for a show, given the size of the average Hollywood ego. But as far as anyone could tell, Garner and Kelly took it in stride — and took great pains in interviews to make it known that they got along. According to TV Guide, the actors made a running game of drawing their prop pistols on each other whenever they happened to meet on the Warner Brothers lot. Whoever lost the draw had to drop whatever he was doing and throw up his hands, leading to an apocryphal tale of how Kelly got the drop on Garner and forced him to let go of a tray full of food in the studio cafeteria. It wasn't true, of course — the commissary had only waitress service — but the game did sometimes end with unusual results. ("Something like that did happen one time in wardrobe," Kelly told TV Guide in 1959. "What happened was, I drew on Jim before he could pull on his pants.")

Garner gave as well as he got. Asked if he ever watched any of Kelly's episodes, he replied, "I've tried, but they put me to sleep." Then he followed with: "Seriously, I like Jack. It's too bad he's getting fat. He can hardly buckle his gun belt."

It was that kind of attitude that eventually helped transform Maverick from a mediocre, straight Western to a successful satire. It seems that early on, a bored Garner took to goofing on what he considered to be the show's pedestrian scripts. So writer Marion Hargrove got even on the page. "Maverick," he wrote in a stage direction, "looks at him with his beady little eyes." Far from being offended, Garner proudly recalled the reaction: "It was blasphemy. The script-research department went running to Hargrove and had a fit. 'You can't say that about a star,' they told him. Hargrove said the heck he couldn't, he'd met Garner and Garner had beady little eyes."

With the star's approval, the scripts began to fill with such gags. When Kelly left a saloon, for example, it was written thusly: "He leaves the saloon. He sees his horse. He smiles. His horse sees him and just nods." In another scene, the writer, describing Bret's reaction, helped the director out with: "We can see his flabby little mind make a small connection." Or this gem: "His face shows resentment, frustration, anxiety and anything else the director thinks he can get out of him."

The levity spread to the show and took it in a more comedic direction, which caught on with audiences. Soon it became the anti-Western, spoofing successful shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. In fact, creator Roy Huggins (The Fugitive) made a point of telling people that his show was a success because all the Western fans were watching Ed Sullivan, its competition. And after Garner successfully sued Warner Bros. over a money dispute and got out of his contract, he found that his antihero image — the brothers Maverick would just as soon run as face a villain in a fight — suited him well. He later played it to perfection in movies like Support Your Local Sheriff and on his classic TV series The Rockford Files.

But back to Kelly, who, after all, was supposed to be the focus of this answer. The actor always had a healthy attitude about his second-player status, even after the producers brought in future James Bond Roger Moore and then Robert Colbert as trial characters to replace Bret. (From 1961 to 1962, Maverick's final season, he finally had the show to himself, but new episodes were mixed with liberal helpings of reruns.) "I've been lucky," he said after Maverick was canceled. "I know a lot of people running around with more talent than I have who never got to first base. I've done everything — stage, radio, movies; I even studied law for a while — and I never got to first base. Then TV gave me the chance for security. I've been very busy trying to create a financial empire ever since."

By the time the show went off the air, Kelly was already building up a tidy real-estate portfolio. And when he died after a stroke and a battle with a heart ailment in 1992, he was in the middle of his third term on the city council of Huntington Beach, Calif., a town that elected him mayor for three years in the '80s.

Sticking with Kelly's sports analogy, it seems like he got well past first base to me.