Garner was born in Denver, Oklahoma (now a part of Norman, Oklahoma). His parents were German Americans, Weldon Warren Bumgarner, a widower, and Mildred Scott (Meek), who died five years after his birth. His older brothers were Jack Garner and Charles Bumgarner, a school administrator. His family was Methodist. After their mother's death, Garner and his brothers were sent to live with relatives. Garner was reunited with his family in 1934, when Weldon remarried.
Garner's father remarried several times. Garner came to hate one of his stepmothers, Wilma, who beat all three boys (especially him). He said that his stepmother also punished him by forcing him to wear a dress in public. When he was 14 years old, he fought with her, knocking her down and choking her to keep her from killing him in retaliation. She left the family and never returned. His brother Jack later commented, "She was a damn no-good woman". Garner's last stepmother was Grace, whom he said he loved and called "Mama Grace", and felt that she was more of a mother to him than anyone else had been.
After World War II, Garner joined his father in Los Angeles and enrolled at Hollywood High School, where he was voted the most popular student. A high school gym teacher recommended him for a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits. It paid well ($25 an hour), but in his first interview for the Archives of American Television, he said he hated modeling; he soon quit and returned to Norman. He played football and basketball at Norman High School, and competed on the track and golf teams. However, he dropped out in his senior year. In a 1976 Good Housekeeping magazine interview, he admitted, "I was a terrible student and I never actually graduated from high school, but I got my diploma in the Army."
Shortly after his father's marriage to Wilma broke up, his father moved to Los Angeles, leaving Garner and his brothers in Norman. After working at several jobs he disliked, Garner worked as a merchant mariner in the United States Merchant Marine at age 16 near the end of World War II. He liked the work and his shipmates, but he suffered from chronic seasickness.
Garner enlisted in the California Army National Guard, serving his first 7 months in California. He then went to Korea for 14 months, as a rifleman in the 5th Regimental Combat Team during the Korean War, then part of the 24th Infantry Division. He was wounded twice, first in the face and hand by shrapnel from a mortar round, and the second time in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dived into a foxhole. Garner received the Purple Heart in Korea for the first wound. He qualified for a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: "As the result of friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy"), but he did not actually receive it until 1983, 32 years after the event.
^James in 1987
If you want to read a lot more about James, go here:
This comforting and easy Chicken Pot Pie Casserole has all the homemade taste you crave without any of the fuss. Serve this chicken casserole warm and bubblin' out of the oven or make it ahead of time for busy days! If you're a chicken pot pie lover, this chicken pot pie casserole recipe is sure to be added to your weekly rotation.