Garner attended University of Oklahoma. He became interested in acting and studied the art at Herbert Bergoff Studios, New York. Garner enjoyed a long and successful acting career with appearances on stage, television and in movies, winning the Emmy Award in 1977 and 1986. His career began with the stage production The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, in the early 1950s. Following, Warner Brothers offered him a contract. In 1956, he made his film debut in Toward the Unknown. He is perhaps most recognized for his title role in the television show Maverick which ran from 1957-62 and for his title role in The Rockford Files, NBC-TV, 1974-79. He acted in the movie The Great Escape in 1963 with fellow Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame Inductees actor Steve McQueen and stuntman Bud Ekins. In 1966, he appeared in the automobile racing movie Grand Prix.
Beyond the screen in “real life” Garner also actively participated in auto racing both on-road and off-road. He drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 on three occasions in 1975, 1977 and 1985. He owned the American International Racing team, from 1967 through 1969; team members raced in both Daytona and Sebring. Garner participated in many off-road races as a driver. His presence often brought a touch of publicity to the sport, while still being treated as an “everyday-man” by his fellow racers. He attended the first Stardust 7-11 in Las Vegas. There, he co-drove with Scooter Patrick in a Porsche-powered Manx owned by John Crean. The men did not finish the race. His presence at the 1968 NORRA Mexican 1000 helped to generate publicity for the event and coverage on ABC’s show the Wide World of Sports. In 1972, Garner raced the Banshee, a vehicle built for him by fellow Hall of Fame Inductee Vic Hickey. Garner won the Riverside Grand Prix in the vehicle, despite the fact that he crashed the car towards the end of the event. He also placed the car in the top five at a number of races. Hickey said of Garner “The thing about Garner was that, while he wasn’t the world’s most fearless driver, he had the best retention of any man who drove for me. On a pre-run, if he hit a bump, he come back five days later and would tell you where it was within ten feet.”
Garner had a history of involvement with humanitarian and other causes he believed in. In 1963, he helped organize Martin Luther King’s March in Washington for Civil Rights and visited the troops in Vietnam in 1967. He was a member of the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund and the National Advisory Board of the United States High School Golf Association. He was involved with the Save the Coast movement to stop offshore drilling in California. One of his more recent endeavors was his involvement with the Save the Children organization.
Garner is an inductee in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. James married Lois Clarke, who already had a daughter named Kimberly. James and Lois had Greta Gigi Scoot Garner together in 1958.