James Garner April 7, 1928 - July 19, 2014

One of my very favorite actors, James Garner, a master of light comedy who shot to fame in the 1950s as 'Maverick' and later won an Emmy as an unconventional L.A. private eye on 'The Rockford Files,' has died at 86 in L.A. One of the most popular guys in Hollywood, he was second to Jimmy Stewart in his all American, honest and friendly image. He had a good long run and we thank him for all the many years of great films and tv shows...

PEOPLE: Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., the future star had a childhood that played like a modern day Oliver Twist. He was only 5 when his mother died, and he and his two brothers were farmed out to various relatives.

Three years later the family was reunited when their father, Weldon (who subsequently married four times), introduced them to their first stepmother, a mean-spirited woman who regularly beat them.

"Mostly me," Garner told PEOPLE in 1985 – the same year he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance, with Sally Field.

"My dad worked hard as an upholsterer and carpet layer," said Garner, "but he was a rake and he drank a lot. He'd come home bombed and make us sing to him or get a whipping."

From that experience, Garner developed a lifelong sympathy for the underdog. "I cannot stand to see little people picked on by big people," he said. "If a director starts abusing people, I'll just jump in."

At 14, he left home and did odd jobs. Two years later he lied about his age and joined the merchant marine, but left in less than a year.

Drifting to L.A., Garner attended Hollywood High, where he developed into a football hero – only to prove shy off the field.

"All the girls liked him," said a childhood friend, "but Jim hardly dated."

 Gigi, James and Lois Garner

On a happier note, in 1956 he met aspiring actress Lois Clarke at a Democratic rally, and, he said, "She just knocked me out." Two weeks later they were married.

Already the mother of a daughter, Kim, by a former marriage, Lois had another daughter with Garner, Gigi. All three survive.

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