By Kenneth Jones
24 Jan 2011
Mr. Garner, whose last Broadway appearance was as Horace Vandergelder opposite Carol Channing in the 1995 revival of Hello, Dolly!, died in New York City of respiratory failure resulting from pneumonia.
James H. Garner, Jr., was born in Sewanee, TN, and grew up in Chattanooga. He graduated from the University of Tennessee and moved to Atlanta, where he worked in radio and began acting. A local repertory company's production of Red, White and Maddox, a musical satirizing Georgia governor Lester Maddox (with Garner in the title role), brought Mr. Garner to Broadway in January 1969. There was already one "James Garner" in the union, forcing Mr. Garner changed his name to "Jay."
In 1971, Mr. Garner replaced Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin in the Tony Award-winning 1776. Ben Franklin became one of Mr. Garner's favorite roles, Weiner said. He would go on to play in regional theatres throughout the U.S. until the late 1990s.
He would later play kindly Ben, the gardener, in the first national tour of The Secret Garden in the early 1990s.
From the late 1970s until 1982, Mr. Garner lived in Los Angeles to work in television and film. He played Admiral Asimov in the last season of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" and was Jason Defarge, the drunken food critic, in a 1982 episode of "Three's Company."
In the film "Pennies From Heaven," he was the banker who tap danced with Steve Martin in the Busby Berkeley-style number "Yes, Yes (My Baby Said Yes)." The kiss he and Steve Martin share at the beginning of the number, Mr. Garner once said, "Wasn't planned. We were face to face, nose to nose and it was almost as if we both had the same idea at the same time. We just kissed. An innocent, odd, charming peck. It was left in the movie."
Weiner told Playbill.com, "Jay had no family and pretty much laid low for the past ten years. We'd been friends and neighbors since La Cage and I'd been looking in on him and running errands for him the last five years. Jay knew funny. Some people have it and some don't. Jay had it. All Jay had to do was make an entrance, and the audience knew right away that before them stood a clown in the tradition of Jackie Gleason or Oliver Hardy. First and foremost though, Jay was a sweet gentle teddy-bear of a man with a kind and generous heart. We're all going to miss him."
Casting director Stuart Howard, who cast the original La Cage aux Folles, told Playbill.com, "Jay was a sweet, funny man who made me laugh whenever we saw each other. He was a man who loved his vacations in Vegas, where he was a high roller — a real 'player.' He was a real player on Broadway too. A lovely, talented man."
According to Internet Broadway Database, Mr. Garner also appeared in Broadway's Goodtime Charley, Captain Brassbound's Conversion and Beggar on Horseback. Off-Broadway credits include The Disintegration of James Cherry and Contributions.
Mr. Garner, an only child, leaves no immediate family. To honor his memory, Weiner has requested that donations be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of Mr. Garner's favorite charities.