The late great James Garner left a lasting impression upon the world of film and television, but there was perhaps no greater character he brought to life than that of gambler Bret Maverick. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. The character of Jim Rockford could very well vie for the title too, of course – though we must take into consideration that Garner was one of four lead actors to be cast in the original Maverick, and still managed to come out ahead of the others (like there was any contest with Robert Colbert!). As the late ’70s rolled around, and a renewed interest in the old ABC program came about, the three major networks of the time (remember when we only had three?) essentially took turns airing spin-offs of Maverick.
A 1978 TV reunion movie called The New Maverick reunited Garner with his original series co-star Jack Kelly (the well-received Bart Maverick), and made way for a disastrous CBS series entitled Young Maverick – which featured Charles Frank as the son of the (sadly) never-seen Maverick cousin Beau (played by Roger Moore in the original series). Axed by the network after only a few episodes, it wasn’t until the NBC mid-season replacement series Bret Maverick booted up in 1981 that something really took hold – though it too was doomed to fail in the long run.
Interestingly, Garner’s representation of Bret Maverick combines a number of characteristics his own Jim Rockford inhabited – such as the fact that this Maverick never seems to really “win”. Removed from his familiar routine of wandering about the country, the pilot of Bret Maverick finds our eponymous gambler arriving in the small Arizona town of Sweetwater (which looks nothing like Sergio Leone’s vision, mind you) for a poker championship. It is there that he actually does win big: raking in not only a small fortune by today’s standards, but the town’s prospering Red Ox Saloon in the process. In fact, it is here that Bret finally decides to settle down, striking up an unlikely partnership with a recently-ousted sheriff (western music star Ed Bruce), who he lovingly gives 75% of the operation to – along with 75% of the overdue mortgage the building has on it with the local bank!
And so, settling in for this odd hybrid of Maverick and The Rockford Files (which had only recently, and unexpectedly, been canceled by NBC), Garner moves into the frequently-filmed-at Sable Ranch with John Carpenter lookalike Richard Hamilton as his ornery Gabby Hayes-esque ranch hand. Most of the action occurs in town, regularly honing in on the nefarious duties of a shift bank manager (Ramon Bieri) with a tight political grip on the community that goes largely unnoticed by the ignorant population, save for a hotshot newspaper woman (Darleen Carr) who develops a very passive-aggressive crush on Maverick (and vice versa). But of course it’s Garner himself – with his wonderful demeanor, delivery, humor and heart – that utlimately carries the quirky show throughout its enjoyable eighteen-episode duration. John Shearin co-stars as Bieri’s bought-and-paid-for sheriff, David Knell is Carr’s also-employed-at-the-family-run-newspaper nephew, and Marj Dusay occasionally appears as the local madam.
Of course, a Garner series would not be worth much without its share of the late actors friends and family, whether they be onscreen or off. The one and only Stuart Margolin appears in several episodes here as a hilariously-phony and very shady Indian who still does a better job at pulling it off than Johnny Depp (and who directs several episodes, including the pilot), while the combined talents of Luis Delgado (Garner’s longtime stand-in) and Jack Garner (Jim’s very own real life brother, who passed away in 2011) pop up quite often as the Red Ox Saloon’s card dealer and bartender (respectively). But it isn’t until the final episode of Bret Maverick that we witness a memorable cameo by Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick.
Midway through the season, Garner requested Maverick creator Roy Huggins join the crew, but that didn’t happen. Nor did any chance of a future for Bret Maverick: NBC opted to not keep the series on the air for a second season (the ratings weren’t too terrible from what I understand, despite the fact that the writers decided to have Maverick temporarily settle down). Had the series been renewed, Kelly would have become a series regular, taking over the Red Ox while Bret once more gallivanted across the West in search of a better hand. But ’twas not to be, ladies and gentlemen: Bret Maverick was not renewed for another season, making this the last time the late James Garner and Jack Kelly (who died in 1992) would ride off into the sunset together – which they actually do here in a series finale that is as heartwarmingly bittersweet as can be.
The Warner Archive presents us with Bret Maverick: The Complete Series in a five-disc set that preserves all 18 shot-on-35mm episodes for enthusiasts, purists, and of course, fans of the late James Garner. The lack of any special features is something of a letdown here (though this is a Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R release, so it’s to be expected), but it’s not a huge loss. After all, as Ed Bruce’s theme song for Bret Maverick reminds us in every episode, “Maverick didn’t come here to lose”. I can only imagine Garner – now reunited with off-screen and on-screen siblings alike – is presently pulling the wool over many a lost TV star of the past in a game of cards somewhere at this very moment. And when you hear Garner himself croon out Bruce’s lyrics for the closing credits of the pilot episode, you’ll agree with me wholeheartedly.