To some, he was the leading man in television’s Maverick and The Rockford Files, while to others he was the star of films like 1966′s Grand Prix. It was during the filming of the Formula One epic that Garner realized his talents ran to more than just acting, and some believed that Garner had the skills to turn driving into a career.
Though he never pursued racing as more than a hobby, Garner had a lifelong passion for racing and for automobiles, clearly evident in his later television and advertising roles. On Saturday, July 19, Garner died at his California home, age 86.
By the time he was offered the role of Pete Aron, a struggling American Formula One driver on the comeback trail, Garner had already starred in ten feature films and the Western-themed television series Maverick. Directed by John Frankenheimer and filmed in Super Panavision 70, Grand Prix was an ambitious attempt to bring the glamour and excitement of Formula One racing to the masses, and the film won a total of three Academy Awards and netted Frankenheimer an Outstanding Director award from the Directors Guild of America.
As with Steve McQueen’s later Le Mans, Grand Prix featured key drivers of the day, including Phil Hill and the unrelated Graham Hill, in an effort to make the racing sequences as realistic as possible.
The movie left Garner with a passion for racing as well as acting, and in 1967 he founded the American International Racing team, which fielded cars in events like Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. His fame later helped him win a contract with the American Motors Corporation, and in 1969 Garner’s shop prepared 10 AMC SC/Ramblers for the Baja 500, with three of his cars finishing in the top five of their class.
Despite the relationship with AMC, Garner (and others) also desert raced an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 known as the Goodyear Grabber, campaigning the car from 1969 until 1972. In the 1969 Mexican 1000, Garner drove the Oldsmobile to a second-place finish, and the outcome may have been different had Garner not punctured a tire and, later, nearly run the car out of oil.
His talents as a driver also earned him the opportunity to pilot the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 not once, but three times (in 1975, 1977 and 1985). In his later years, Garner served as a pitch man for Mazda, saying of the second generation Mazda RX-7 convertible, “just once in your life, you deserve a car this good.”
Garner had been largely out of the media spotlight since suffering a stroke in 2008, and police are attributing his death to natural causes.