By Bruce Weber
Joe Santos, a sturdily built, unpretentious character actor who had a memorable role as the overworked detective Dennis Becker on the popular 1970s drama “The Rockford Files,” died on Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 84.
His son Perry confirmed the death, saying that Mr. Santos had had a heart attack earlier in the week.
Born in Brooklyn and reared in the Red Hook section, where many of his relatives were longshoremen and where he developed the working-class diction that became part of his appeal, Mr. Santos often played rough-hewed characters with an aura of toughness mellowed by earnestness or beleaguerment.
From the early 1960s, when he had a walk-on role in the series “Naked City,” he appeared on television series with enough regularity to qualify as an oh-yeah-that-guy performer, especially after “Rockford” made its debut in 1974.
The show, set in and around Los Angeles, starred James Garner as a resourceful if not financially stable private detective who lived in a battered trailer in a beach parking lot and had a somewhat rocky relationship with the local police; his main contact was Becker, whose patience he was constantly testing and whose loyalty to Rockford was looked down upon by his superiors.
Mr. Garner, who died in 2014, and Mr. Santos, who was nominated for an Emmy in 1979, made Rockford and Becker an odd couple in the longstanding tradition of television, mutually irritating but ultimately complicit. (Becker eventually made lieutenant.) The show ran for six years and was revived in a series of television movies in the 1990s.
Mr. Santos’s other prime-time credits included appearances as police lieutenants on “Hardcastle and McCormick,” an action series that starred Brian Keith, and “Magnum, P.I.,” starring Tom Selleck as a laid-back detective in Hawaii. More recently he was a mob consiglieri on the HBO drama “The Sopranos.”
Mr. Santos’s movies included “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971), a drama about drug addiction that starred a young Al Pacino, and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), in which he played a criminal involved in a gun-dealing scheme.
Mr. Santos took a meandering route to his ultimate career. He was born on June 9, 1931, as Joseph John Minieri Jr. His father died on the day he was born. His mother, the former Rose Sarno, sold olive oil on the way to becoming a nightclub owner and singer in New York and Havana. She was married for a time to a Puerto Rican-born singer, Daniel Santos, and her son took his name.
Joe Santos attended military schools in the New York area, served in the Army during the Korean War and went to Fordham University, where he played football. In the 1950s he went to Havana, reportedly with a shipment of used cars to sell, and while there he met and married Maria Montero, who became known as Mary Santos. The couple returned to the United States when Fidel Castro seized power, he told United Press International in 1976. She died in 1988.
Besides his son Perry, Mr. Santos is survived by his partner, Nancy Hobson; another son, Joe Jr.; a daughter, Lilli Santos; and a grandson.