Actor Joe Santos, known as Lt. Dennis Becker in The Rockford Files, has passed away at the age of 84. After a heart attack on Wednesday, he was put on life support, but sadly passed away on Friday morning in Santa Monica.
Santos was born on June 9, 1939 as Joseph John Minieri Jr. and was raised in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. His father died on the day he was born. His mother, Rose Sarno, sold olive oil before becoming a nightclub owner and singer in New York and Havana. Growing up with most of his family being dock workers, he developed the hardy, Brooklyn “hood” accent and poise so suited to the roles in which he was often cast. After attending military schools in the New York area, he served in the army in Korea and studied at Fordham University where he played semi-professional football. He attended an acting class with a friend and discovered his passion, sparking a 40-year acting career.
Before his acting career took off, he earned his keep doing odd jobs. “I owned a bar, I worked on the railroad and I chopped down trees. Before Castro took over in Cuba, I used to buy $25 cars and drive them down to Key West. From there, I’d get them into Havana and unload them for $500 apiece,” he revealed in an interview with TV Guide. On one of these trips to Cuba, he met his future wife, Maria Montero. The couple stayed in Cuba until Fidel Castro seized power.
From the early 1960’s, he had a small role in the series Naked City. Making fairly regular appearances in this and other series, he was often typecast as a police officer, as his particular acting style and upbringing made the roles believable. In 1971, his break came in the form of his friend, Al Pacino, who helped him get roles in the movies The Panic in Needle Park, a drama about drug addiction, and in 1973, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which he played a criminal involved in a gun-dealing scheme.
From September 1974 to January 1980, The Rockford Files was aired on the NBC network. The show, set in the Los Angeles and surrounding area, starred James Garner as private investigator Jim Rockford. Santos played the part of Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Dennis Becker, a friend of the ex-convict turned PI, Rockford.
The show was nominated for, and won numerous awards, including the American Cinema Editors, USA, in the category Best Edited Episode for a Television Series (nominated) and Bambi Awards for TV Series International (won), in 1977. In the Edgar Allen Poe Awards 1977 and 1978, it was nominated for Best Television Episode, and in 2005 it won the Special Edgar Award. Santos was nominated for a supporting actor Emmy in 1979.
He later appeared as Police Lieutenants in two more prime time series. The first, Hardcastle and McCormick, as Lt. Frank Harper (1985–1986) and the second, Magnum PI (1980-1988), as Lt. Nolan Page, a Honolulu Police Department lieutenant with a New York accent. In the mid-90s, he also appeared in many Rockford Files TV Movies including I Still Love LA and A Blessing In Disguise.
In the HBO series, The Sopranos, he played Angelo Garepe, consigliere to Carmen Lupertazzi for 30 years before his incarceration. His character appeared in seven episodes before being murdered.
In 1997, he took a part in The Postman, a post-apocolyptic adventure movie starring Kevin Costner and was most recently seen in the 2015 film Chronic, a Franco-Mexican drama written and directed by Michel Franco starring Tim Roth.
Joe Santos is survived by his partner Nancy Hobson, his sons Perry and Joe Jr., his daughter Lilli, and a grandson.
[Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images]