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GARNER’S `MAVERICK’ BUCKED OLD STEREOTYPES

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The motion picture industry has dipped into the television vaults again and brought us the big-screen version of "Maverick."

It sounds promising with Mel Gibson taking on the role of Bret Maverick and aided by a cast that includes Jodie Foster and James Garner, who starred in the original television series.It's ironic that Garner continues to be associated with the "Maverick" saga. During a contract dispute with Warner Brothers, he walked away from the television series in 1960 after only three seasons and never returned.

Yet, in the ensuing years he has been involved in a couple of attempts to revive the series on television. He appeared in "The New Maverick" (a 1978 TV movie) and starred in "Bret Maverick," which aired in 1981-82 on NBC. And now comes the feature film.

Although he's enjoyed a lengthy movie career and scored as Jim Rockford on "The Rockford Files," Garner has never been able to shake his "Maverick" identity.

To understand the impact Garner's Maverick had on the public, you have to understand the climate in which it was born. It was the late 1950s and television was glutted with Westerns. Most of them featured the strong, grim silent types such as Matt Dillon and Cheyenne Bodie, or heroes with gimmicks such as Bat Masterson (a cane) or Paladin (a card that said "Have Gun, Will Travel").

No matter - practically every episode featured the climactic shootout between hero and villain.

Then along came "Maverick" with a refreshing approach to it all.

Bret Maverick, as played by Garner, was a wise-cracking cardsharp who had a love of high living and an eye for the ladies. The show premiered on ABC in September 1957 and was a fairly straight Western at the outset. But thanks to the scriptwriters and Garner's own personality, it soon became a tongue-in-cheek romp through the Old West.

Two months after its premiere, Jack Kelly showed up as Bret's brother, Bart. During the next three seasons, the two happily roamed the West, fleecing the locals and facing down the bad guys when they absolutely had to. The latter is one of the reasons "Maverick" is so fondly remembered.

Both brothers, but especially Bret, would figure out all sorts of ways to get out of a fight. A showdown at high noon? Not them if there was a way out. More often than not, they'd take the money and run.

"Maverick" was frequented with memorable characters such as Gentleman Jim Darby (Richard Long) and Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). And there were spoofs of such shows as "Bonanza," "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke." You had to figure everyone was having a ball working on the show. But as his star rose, Garner became more and more unhappy with his contract.

For the 1960-61 season, Warner Brothers brought in Roger (007) Moore to play Beauregard Maverick, a cousin who had spent most of his time in England before returning to the Wild West. Moore left after one year (he became TV's "The Saint" in England) and Robert Colbert showed up as brother Brent Maverick for the final season, not that many people noticed. By then, the ratings had tumbled and ABC dropped "Maverick" during the summer of 1962.

If it was such a great series with Garner, why does it never show up on television these days? The problem is that the series was filmed in black-and-white and most TV station managers fear that would be a turnoff to current generations.

Fortunately, there is home video. Available from Warner Brothers Home Video is a five-volume collection of "Maverick." Each cassette, priced at $19.95, features two one-hour (OK, 48-minute) episodes of the James Garner years.

The premiere show, "War of the Silver Kings," is included in volume one. The fifth volume contains an episode in which Garner plays Bret and his "Pappy."

The tongue-in-cheek approach to the Western is old hat (or is that old stetson?) now, but when "Maverick" first arrived on the scene, it was practically brand new territory.