The son of an Oklahoma carpet layer, James Garner did stints in the Army and merchant marines before working as a model. His professional acting career began with a non-speaking part in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954), in which he was also assigned to run lines with stars Lloyd Nolan, Henry Fonda, and John Hodiak. Given that talent roster, and the fact that the director was Charles Laughton, Garner managed to earn his salary and receive a crash course in acting at the same time. After a few television commercials, he was signed as a contract player by Warner Bros. in 1956. He barely had a part in his first film, The Girl He Left Behind (1956), though he was given special attention by director David Butler, who felt Garner had far more potential than the film's nominal star, Tab Hunter.
Due in part to Butler's enthusiasm, Garner was cast in the Warner Bros. TV Western Maverick. The scriptwriters latched on to his gift for understated humor, and, before long, the show had as many laughs as shoot-outs. Garner was promoted to starring film roles during his Maverick run, but, by the third season, he chafed at his low salary and insisted on better treatment. The studio refused, so he walked out. Lawsuits and recriminations were exchanged, but the end result was that Garner was a free agent as of 1960. He did quite well as a freelance actor for several years, turning in commendable work in such films as Boys' Night Out (1962) and The Great Escape (1963), but was soon perceived by filmmakers as something of a less-expensive Rock Hudson, never more so than when he played Hudson-type parts opposite Doris Day in Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of It All! (both 1963).