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James Garner, Poker and Life

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Who is the tall, dark stranger there?
Maverick is the name.
Ridin' the trail to who knows where,
Luck is his companion,
Gamblin' is his game…

Riverboat, ring your bell,
Fare thee well, Annabel.
Luck is the lady that he loves the best…
Livin’ on jacks and queens
Maverick is a legend of the west.

Like many songs, the magic’s in the singing, not the words.

The lyrics come from the theme song of “Maverick,” a black-and-white TV western based on the adventures of brothers Bret and Bart Maverick, a pair of itinerant Texas gamblers. In addition to entertaining millions, the show kept alive a venerable Texas surname that had long since become a noun.

Samuel Maverick (1803-1870), whose biggest gamble had been signing his name to the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, made a living and a reputation off Longhorn cattle. Somewhere along the way, an independently minded bovine came to be referred to as a maverick. In time, “maverick” morphed into a synonym for any critter that stood on its own feet – be it four feet or two.

One Sunday evening earlier this summer, about the time I used to eagerly wait for “Maverick” to come on so many years before, I heard on the news that its lead actor, James Garner, had died. I never got to meet him, but I learned a lot about his early career from Dean Smith, a veteran cowboy stuntman who got his start in Hollywood thanks to Garner.

Smith grew up between Breckenridge and Albany in West Texas. A high school track star, while attending the University of Texas he won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics. One of his fellow USA team members happened to be friends with a guy named James Bumgardner, and Smith and Bumgardner also got to be pals.

Five years later, Smith learned that Bumgardner had the lead role in a new television series called “Maverick.” Driving to California, Smith pulled up at the gate of the Warner Brothers lot and said he wanted to see James Bumgardner. A beefy security guard, probably an off-duty LA cop, consulted a list and pronounced that no one by that name worked at the studio. Dejected, Smith headed back to Texas.

Not long after, he saw a photograph of his friend in the Dallas Morning News. The actor would be appearing at the State Fair. That’s when Smith discovered that for show biz reasons, James Bumgardner had changed his name to James Garner. Smith drove to Big D, easily got an audience with Bumgardner-Garner, and told him he wanted a shot at Hollywood.

Garner helped Smith get his Screen Actors Guild card, and Smith went on to a long and successful career as a stuntman on the big and little screen. He and Garner remained life-long friends.

S
ocial scientists for years have pondered whether television has an adverse impact on children. I can report that yes, early-day TV, especially the Westerns of the 1950s and early ‘60s, had an influence on at least one Baby Boomer. But as best I can tell, the effect was neutral at worst, positive at best.

For instance, any sense of humor I may have definitely was informed by Bret Maverick’s dry wit. In subtle other ways, I can feel a little Maverick in me yet. Bret often quoted his dad, usually prefacing it with, “My ole pappy used to say…” Decades later, I realized that Maverick-like, I often invoke some expression or sentiment I heard from my granddad.

But what I really got from Maverick was a love of poker. Both my parents liked to play, but I didn’t really develop an interest in the game until I became a Maverick fan.

Years ago, prowling some used book store, I saw a thin paperback called “Poker According to Maverick.” When I pulled it off the shelf and looked at the cover, I saw a color photo of brothers Bret and Bart siting at a poker table.

Published by Dell in 1959, the book sold for 35 cents. Anyone who read it and followed its advice (basically to play the odds) could have recouped his investment and then some in just one hand.

The book features a pull-out quote from Maverick. Whether it came from one of the show’s episodes or was created out of whole cloth, well, green flannel, makes no difference. Phony as it is, it says a lot:

“One thing pappy told me was, ‘If you know poker, you know people; and if you know people, you got the whole danged world lined up in your sights.’” He added, “There’s enough sense in that to make the game worth all the trouble it can get you into.”

Like all the actors once a part of our lives, Garner will live on in video along with the theme song of his show. Still, I can’t take complete comfort from that. His passing and the realization that it was 57 years ago when he brightened my dreading-school-the-next-day Sunday nights, only serves as one more reminder that we all are only given so many chips to play with.

And any poker player knows that no matter how well you play the cards, you’ll never win every hand. Beyond that, sooner or later, the time will come to cash in our chips.

The metaphoric riverboat of my life, and that of my fellow boomers who also watched Maverick, is moving farther down the figurative Mississippi every day. But like Maverick, I’ll keep playing as long as the cards keep coming.



© Mike Cox - August 28, 2014 column
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