Maverick replaced James Garner with a lookalike and hoped viewers didn't notice
"Put me in a dress and call me Brenda!"
Robert Colbert had big shoes to fill. Literally. The young actor first gained attention in Have Rocket — Will Travel, a 1959 Three Stooges flick. Warner Brother snatched him up and signed him to a contract. The studio slotted him into small guest roles on Westerns like Colt .45, Sugarfoot and Cheyenne, but in 1960, a more daunting opportunity presented itself. James Garner walked away from his hit series Maverick, and the studio needed a replacement.
If they could not have James Garner, why not get a guy who looked just like him? And dress him in the very same costumes?
If any show could survive the loss of a title character, it was perhaps Maverick. From the start, there were multiple Mavericks, brothers Bret and Bart, played by Garner and Jack Kelly. The episodes alternated between the two characters and the two stars. Occasionally, the brothers would team up.
There may have been a Maverick to spare, but Garner was undeniably the more popular actor and the face of the show. Hence the need for a substitute face.
"They tried to sell him as a James Garner look-alike," Garner wrote in his autobiography The Garner Files: A Memoir. The studio dressed him in the same clothes — skinny bow tie, colorful silk vest, black jacket, black hat, khaki pants, brown belt. It was cosplay. But they called him a new brother, Brent Maverick.
"Put me in a dress and call me Brenda," Colbert pleaded to his bosses. "But please don't do this to me!" He foresaw the unfair comparisons.
Garner even claimed that producers attempted some cinematography tricks to fool the audience. "They put him in my suit and underlit him," the actor wrote. Perhaps if it was shadowy enough, viewers wouldn't notice? Remember, this was long before the era of large screens and HD, let alone color. "But as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew it wasn't me."
It's hard to deny the homophonous similarities between "Bret" and "Brent." In quick dialogue from a cowboy's mouth, they're essentially the same.
Warner Bros. had an insurance policy, too. Another Maverick family member joined the adventures in season four. Call him Maverick, Beau Maverick. Future James Bond star Roger Moore stepped into the role of an English cousin who comes across the Atlantic. The studio intended Bart, Beau and Brent to team up and cross paths, as seen in this publicity photo.
The team-up only happened in photographs. Brent and Beau never met onscreen. Moore left the series, too. His final appearance was in episode 25 of season four. Colbert made his debut as Brent in episode 28, "The Forbidden City."
That would be just one of two appearances for poor Brent. Turns out, fans certainly did notice that was not James Garner in James Garner's clothes.
For season five, Warner Bros. stripped back to having just Jack Kelly as Bart. His episodes alternated with reruns of Bret adventures. Even a repeat beat a copy.