One of the most recognized gamblers in popular American history died Saturday, and the keepers of the Strip didn’t even bother to dim the lights.
Although he never won a World Series of Poker bracelet or a $1 million jackpot, James Garner’s “Maverick” character was the first acceptable gambler portrayed on television. He was handsome, clever, never cheated a sucker — and always outsmarted the bad guys.
Compared to the long line of dysfunctional desperados usually associated with the gambling scene in the 1950s and early ’60s, Maverick was an ace in an otherwise crooked deck.
Other characters from popular culture either didn’t send the right message or were so superior they were hard to relate to. Danny Ocean and his crew were a kick in the head, but they weren’t gamblers. They were thieves. They were out to beat Las Vegas, not enjoy it.
James Bond came along and scored big with the chicks and at the baccarat tables, but mere mortals could never approach his degree of style and expertise with the latest spy technology. When it came to selling the acceptability of gambling to the masses, he was truly a foreign agent.
Where Sinatra’s Frankie Machine in “The Man with the Golden Arm” was on dope and Steve McQueen’s “Cincinnati Kid” fought desperation in the pool hall, Bret Maverick was a wisecracking vagabond card player who always got the last laugh. And he played a helluva poker hand, too.
Garner, the man who brought him into American living rooms near the outset of a long and successful film career, died Saturday. He was 86.
As expected, tributes to Garner have flowed across the media like cheap whiskey. He was a movie star who never lost the common touch with his audience.
But although Garner enjoyed huge success on television as the star of “The Rockford Files” and won big-screen adulation in numerous movies that ranged from “The Great Escape” and “Grand Prix” to “Support Your Local Gunfighter” and “Murphy’s Romance,” Las Vegans should pay respect to his Maverick character.
It was the role of a traveling Texas poker sharpie that not only put Garner on the map, but also gave the great American gambling subculture a character worth admiring. “Maverick” ran from 1957-1962 and has ridden the range of syndication for decades. But Maverick the character was a guy you’d want to hang out with.
He wasn’t just quarterback good looking and smooth with a deck of cards. He also had a sense of ethics. He paid his debts. And if he cheated, well, those he took advantage of surely deserved it.
Maverick’s Wikipedia entry notes that Bret and his brothers were “constantly getting into and out of life-threatening trouble of one sort or another, usually involving money, women, or both. They would typically find themselves weighing a financial windfall against a moral dilemma. More often than not, their consciences trumped their wallets since both Mavericks were intensely ethical.”
The series even produced an episode called “According to Hoyle,” which extolled the virtues of Maverick repaying “a questionable debt.”
Today, there would be a lawsuit.
We take the acceptance of legalized casinos for granted now, and Hollywood abounds with tales of gamblers and “Vegas” themes, but the first episode of “Maverick” aired just five years after the Kefauver national rackets hearings were the top show on television. Gambling was legal only in Nevada, a state with a considerable image problem and a casino industry riddled with organized crime connections and hidden ownership.
If the founding fathers of the casino racket were really on the ball in those days, they would have elected Garner Nevada’s Governor and had him dress in that signature black hat and vest Maverick wore.
Instead, Garner went on to a long career in Hollywood. The outlaws of Nevada gaming evolved into corporations traded on the stock exchange.
Gambling’s acceptance in modern America came about gradually and benefited from positive imagery in pop culture. On the cusp of the 1960s, who was more popular on TV than Maverick?
A tip of our hats shouldn’t be too much to ask.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.