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‘Rockford Files’ costar Joe Santos dead at 84

Actor Joe Santos, who costarred with James Garner on NBC's "The Rockford Files," makes a call on the set of his NBC comedy series "Me and Maxx," on March 18, 1980. AP file photo

Actor Joe Santos, who played Sgt. (later Lt.) Dennis Becker on NBC-TV’s “The Rockford Files,” has died.

Mr. Santos, who was 84, died Friday at a Santa Monica, California, hospital after a heart attack Wednesday at his Los Angeles home, according to his son Perry and agent Alicia Beekman.

The Brooklyn native’s career spanned four decades, from a guest shot on “Naked City” in the early 1960s through a recurring role on “The Sopranos.”

But he was best known as Becker, the long-suffering buddy on the Los Angeles police force and grudging helpmate of L.A. private eye Jim Rockford — played by James Garner — on “The Rockford Files,” which originally aired from 1974 to 1980 (there were later “Rockford Files” TV movies). Mr. Santos, who was the only cop who ever had a kind word for Rockford, appeared in 112 episodes and the made-for-TV movies and was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama in 1979.

Joe Santos, right, with James Garner on “The Rockford Files.” NBC photo
Joe Santos, right, with James Garner on “The Rockford Files.” NBC photo

In a 1977 story, TV Guide quoted Garner as saying of Mr. Santos: “He’s the kind of guy who lights up a set just by showing up. And there aren’t too many around like that. He’s so good and so professional, and he’s got so much enthusiasm. He’s one hell of an actor, and he’s one tough little dude. But mostly Joe is a pussycat.”

He also had guest roles — typically playing good cops — on series including “Magnum, P.I.,” “Miami Vice,” “Police Story” and “Hardcastle & McCormick,” as well as in the 1973 TV miniseries “The Blue Knight,” which was his first big break. He also played a detective in the movie “Panic in Needle Park.”

But he was a bad guy on HBO’s “The Sopranos” — consigliere Angelo Garepe in seven episodes in 2004. He most recently was seen in the 2015 film “Chronic.”

His other movie credits included “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (1971), “The Last Boy Scout” (1991), “Mo’ Money” (1992), “The Postman” (1997) and “The Man From Elysian Fields” (2001).

Joe Santos
Joe Santos

Mr. Santos was over 30 when he got into acting, having worked a variety of jobs.

“I spent a lot of time stumbling around,” the actor said in a 1980 interview with The Associated Press. “I fell into this by accident.”

Born Joseph Minieri in 1931, Mr. Santos played football at Fordham University under the late Vince Lombardi — best known for coaching the Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls — and went on to play semipro ball.

Football was his passion, but, at 5-foot-10 and just over 170 pounds, he took a few knocks. It was a football injury that led to his becoming an actor. While recuperating from a knee operation, a friend putting on a show talked him into doing a part. After that, he worked on a soap opera and did a lot of theater, often working for free. He came west for “Zandy’s Bride,” then got the part of a cop, Sgt. Cruz Segovia, in “The Blue Knight” miniseries.

James Garner (left) and Joe Santos (right) in a CBS press guide for the 1997 TV movie “The Rockford Files: Shootout at the Gold Pagoda.”
James Garner (left) and Joe Santos (right) in a CBS press guide for the 1997 TV movie “The Rockford Files: Shootout at the Gold Pagoda.”

“I’ve worked with some good people,” he said in the 1980 interview. “James Garner, Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, William Holden. I was against the tide with all of those. I really had to row to keep up.”

Of Garner and “Rockford,” he said: “I loved Jimmy. The whole company was terrific. It was a good product. They cared about me, and I cared about them. But I’m happy it ended and I could take a step forward for myself.

“It helped my career a lot. It gave me a television identification. If a show plays for a while, people accept you and identify with you to some degree. Also, it’s a place to learn your craft.”

Mr. Santos, who was divorced, is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Joe Santos, with mustache, left, pictured with Paul Rodriguez (center foreground), Hector Elizondo and Katy Jurado in one of Santos’ less well-known TV series, the Norman Lear comedy “a.k.a Pablo.”
Joe Santos, with mustache, left, pictured with Paul Rodriguez (center foreground), Hector Elizondo and Katy Jurado in one of Santos’ less well-known TV series, the Norman Lear comedy “a.k.a Pablo.”