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
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.
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
“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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