Series creator Roy Huggins inverted the usual screen-cowboy customs familiar in television and movies at the time by dressing his hero in a fancy black broadcloth gambler's suit, an outfit normally reserved in western films for villains, and allowing him to be realistically (and vocally) reluctant to risk his life, though Maverick typically ended up forcing himself to be courageous, usually in spite of himself.
The first broadcast episode of Maverick, "War of the Silver Kings," was based on C.B Glasscock's "The War of the Copper Kings," which relates the real-life adventures of copper mine speculator F. Augustus Heinze. The real-life copper king ultimately went to Wall Street. Huggins recalls in his Archive of American Television interview that this Warners-owned property was selected by the studio as the first episode in order to cheat him out of creator residuals.
Bret Maverick frequently flimflammed adversaries, but only criminals who actually deserved it. Otherwise he was scrupulously honest almost to a fault, in at least one case insisting on repaying a debt that he only arguably owed to begin with (in "According to Hoyle").
Maverick was not a particularly fast draw with a pistol, but like all TV cowboy heroes of the era, it was almost superhumanly impossible for anyone to beat him in any sort of a fistfight (perhaps the one cowboy cliché that Huggins left intact, reportedly at the insistence of the studio).
Critics have repeatedly referred to Bret Maverick as "arguably the first TV anti-hero," and have praised the show for its photography and Garner's charisma and subtly comedic facial expressions.
The Bart Maverick character was originally written to be more or less a clone of his brother Bret, dressing similarly and speaking identical dialogue; the only discernible difference was in the ways the two actors played their parts. No separate personalities were ever concocted for subsequent Mavericks by the writing staffs as the cast changed over the years. The names changed but the poker skills and every other attribute remained exactly the same except for the different actors playing Maverick.
Garner as Bret usually wore a black cowboy hat, often changing its placement on his head from one scene to the next, while Kelly as Bart almost always wore a light grey one, and both wore black or grey suit jackets when gambling in saloons (usually black jackets, but occasionally grey; Kelly wore grey suits in his first few episodes but soon switched to black for the rest of the series, always wearing a light grey hat except for one occasion.) Garner at 6'3" was two inches taller than Kelly, leading a character in one episode ("Seed of Deception") to refer to them as "the big one" and "the little one." Garner always generated more attention from the public and the media during the run of the series than Kelly, leading Kelly in later years to cheerfully remark, "Garner was Maverick. I was his brother."
Other actors also considered for the role of Bart Maverick before Kelly was chosen included Rod Taylor and Stuart Whitman (who played Marshal Jim Crown in the western TV series Cimarron Strip a decade later and closely resembled Garner in 1957).
The chairman of Kaiser Aluminum, the series' main sponsor at the time, became so perturbed when Kelly was brought in to share the show with Garner (saying, "I paid for red apples and I get green apples!") that ABC had to cut a new deal that cost the network a small fortune.
Oddly, only one script was actually written with Jack Kelly in mind during the first three years of the series, since the writers were instructed to picture James Garner as the lead regardless of which actor would actually wind up playing it. Kelly lacked Garner's deftly light touch with comedic facial expressions, which has led to widespread belief that Bart was meant to be the more "serious" brother. Since only one script was actually written for Kelly, however, the difference was mainly in the acting rather than the writing, even though Garner probably did actually wind up with more of the comedy scripts; Huggins noted in his videotaped Archive of American Television interview that Kelly dropped a funny line "like a load of coal."
The scripts with both brothers were written with the Mavericks designated as "Maverick 1" and "Maverick 2," and Garner chose which part he'd play in these two-brother episodes, since he had seniority; this guaranteed that Garner always enjoyed the better half of the story.
Garner and Kelly made an effective team and the episodes featuring them both were audience favorites, with critics frequently citing the chemistry between the Maverick brothers. Bret and Bart often found themselves competing with each other for women or money, or working together in some elaborate scheme to snooker someone who'd just robbed one of them.
Which Maverick brother happened to be the older was purposely left ambiguous, with both Bret and Bart emphatically claiming to be the younger whenever the topic came up in conversation with a woman. Jack Kelly was a year older than James Garner in real life.
Kelly's episodes consistently drew slightly higher ratings than Garner's during the first two seasons (the difference always slight enough to be within the margin of error), but after writer/producer Roy Huggins left the show and there was a gradual decline in ratings, Garner's shows scored higher than Kelly's. Huggins speculated in his Archive of American Television reminiscences that the audience was bigger for Kelly's shows because of enthusiasm engendered by the previous week's Garner broadcast.
Roger Moore as Beau Maverick generally wore a grey suit (that had actually previously been worn by Garner) with a light grey cowboy hat, and his self-described "slight English accent" (actually quite heavy) was explained by his having spent the last few years in England. Moore was exactly the same age as Jack Kelly and brought a flair for light comedy and a physical similarity to Garner that fit Maverick perfectly--Moore even looked as much like the profile drawing of the card player at the beginning of each show, even though the profile was based upon Garner's likeness.
Moore quit due to declining script quality (without having to resort to legal measures as Garner had); Moore insisted that if he'd had the level of superb writing that Garner had enjoyed during the first two years of the show's run, he would have stayed. Some of Moore's shows are quite good, however, particularly an episode written and directed by Robert Altman, and critics noted that Moore and Kelly worked well together in their several two-Maverick episodes. Moore would later replace another cultural icon when he took over the James Bond role in movies after Sean Connery's departure.
Oddly, in a TV series called The Alaskans, Moore had previously spoken Garner's lines. Warner Brothers had a policy of recycling the scripts through each of their television series to save money on writers, literally changing only the names and the locales while leaving the rest of the dialogue more or less intact, and Moore had acted in several recycled Maverick scripts, a kind of peculiar accidental audition to play Maverick.
The studio had intended for Jack Kelly, Roger Moore, and Robert Colbert to be on the series at the same time, and a publicity photo exists of Bart, Beau, and Brent standing together on a street with their pistols pointed, as well as a color shot of Bart and Beau admiring the thousand dollar bill pinned to the inside of Brent's jacket (a recurring Maverick plot device), but Moore had already left the show when the first of Colbert's two episodes aired in 1961.
For the final season in 1962, the studio dropped Colbert and alternated new Kelly episodes with Garner reruns before canceling the series, and viewers could readily discern the script quality decline in the newer shows. The studio reversed the actors' billing at the beginning of the show for that last season and billed Kelly over Garner, who'd been long absent from the lot by then.
Character actors from the era enhanced every episode, some of them appearing seven or eight times over the course of the series in various roles. A very young Joel Grey played Billy the Kid in an unusual episode that featured a bravura pistol-twirling exhibition by Garner, and a chubby, acne-scarred Robert Redford joined Kelly on a desperate cattle drive. Stacy Keach, Sr. played a sheriff in "Ghost Rider." (The resemblance to his son, actor Stacy Keach, is strong enough that it has confused modern viewers). Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, Tol Avery, Buddy Ebsen, Chubby Johnson, Hans Conried, Alan Hale, Jr., Jim Backus, Patric Knowles, and dozens of other character actors appeared at least once if not several times during the run of the series, and attractive supporting actresses included Mala Powers, Catherine McLeod, Coleen Gray, Marie Windsor, Erin O'Brien, Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, Ruta Lee, Joi Lansing, Karen Steele, Roxane Berard, Abby Dalton, Dawn Wells, Joanna Barnes, Pat Crowley, Connie Stevens, Julie Adams, Saundra Edwards, Whitney Blake, Merry Anders, Kaye Elhardt, Jean Willes, Suzanne Lloyd, Paula Raymond, Fay Spain, and Adele Mara.
The program's stentorian-voiced announcer ("Maverick! Starring Jack Kelly and Robert Colbert!") was character actor Ed Reimers.
Jack Kelly's favorite episode was "Two Beggars On Horseback," a sweeping adventure that depicted a frenzied race between Bret and Bart to cash a check, the only time in the series that Kelly also wore a black hat.
"Pappy" stands out as a unique episode, with James Garner playing Bret and Bart's father Beau, an important but previously unseen character always referred to throughout the run of the series as "Pappy." Bret and Bart were both constantly saying, "As my Pappy used to say" then reeling off some intriguing aphorism like "Work is fine for killing time but it's a shaky way to make a living." In this particular episode, Pappy was brought to life for the only time in the series by Garner, and Bret also winds up disguising himself as his own grey-haired, mustachioed father as part of the plotline. The split screen sequences with two Garners in the same shot were singled out by critics as especially interesting. Kelly also plays a dual role, briefly portraying old Beau's brother Bentley, or "Uncle Bent," as Bret calls him.
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s charming character Dandy Jim Buckley (Maverick minus the meticulous scruples) appears to especially superb effect in the epic "Stampede" and comedy of treachery "The Jail at Junction Flats." The latter episode features a memorable conclusion that offended many 1958 viewers. (Zimbalist went on to play the lead in his own series, 77 Sunset Strip, after five appearances as Buckley. Huggins recruited Richard Long to fill the void as a similar character named "Gentleman Jack Darby," and both Buckley and Darby appear in "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," although not in the same scenes.)
Many episodes are humorous while others are deadly serious, and in addition to purely original scripts, producer Roy Huggins drew upon works by writers as disparate as Louis Lamour and Robert Louis Stevenson to give the series breadth and scope. The Maverick brothers never stopped traveling, and the show was as likely to be set on a riverboat or in New Orleans as in a western desert or frontier saloon.
Two years later, another attempt to revive the show would occur after James Garner left The Rockford Files and needed to perform in another series to fulfill his contractual obligations. Bret Maverick (1981-82) starred the 53-year-old Garner as an older-but-no-wiser Bret. Jack Kelly appeared as Bret's brother Bart in only one episode but was slated to return as a series regular for the following season. NBC unexpectedly canceled the show despite respectable ratings and Kelly would never officially join the cast. The new series involved Bret Maverick settling down in a small town in Arizona after winning a saloon in a poker game: the 2-hour first episode was eventually trimmed and repackaged as a TV-movie under the title Bret Maverick: The Lazy Ace. Critics lacked enthusiasm for the show, saying the scripts more closely resembled the inferior ones from the latter part of the original Maverick series than the classic ones from the first years of the show. Bret Maverick ended on a sentimental note, with Bret and Bart embracing during an unexpected encounter and the theme from the original series playing in the background.
The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) featured Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick for the last time. The film united Kelly with various other Western characters and actors, including Bat Masterson (Gene Barry), Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brien), the Rifleman (Chuck Connors) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), Caine from Kung Fu (David Carradine), The Westerner (Brian Keith), a thinly disguised Virginian and Trampas (James Drury and Doug McClure who had appearred briefly as a hotel clerk in a first season episode), and Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker). Kenny Rogers played the lead as part of his TV-movie series based on his hit song ("...know when to fold 'em..."), with the others (including Maverick) more or less relegated to brief appearances. Garner had made a similar appearance as Bret Maverick years before, in a 1959 Bob Hope movie called Alias Jesse James that also featured Hugh O'Brien as Wyatt Earp, along with Fess Parker (dressed as Davy Crockett), Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Jay Silverheels (Tonto from The Lone Ranger), Gail Davis (Annie Oakley), James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke), and Ward Bond (Seth Adams of Wagon Train), not to mention Hope's frequent screen partner Bing Crosby. Garner's appearance in the film is frequently absent from television presentations of the movie due to legal problems with the rights to the character.