Written by Jim Suva
Joe Santos is best known for his portrayal of Sgt. and later Lt. Dennis Becker, on The Rockford Files. I recently had the opportunity to interview Joey Santos, Joe’s son.
Joe Santos was born in Brooklyn New York, on June 9, 1931. He was 100% Italian. His Father, Joseph Minieri was a mobster and was murdered while his mother was in the hospital giving birth to him.
After Joe was born, his mother, Rose, took him to Italy where they lived for three years. Upon returning to New York, she contacted the mob. Rose told them, “I did you a favor, now I want a favor.” So they set her up in business. She went on to own nightclubs in NY, Havana and Miami. She later married famed Latin singer, Daniel Santos. Daniel adopted Joe; hence the surname.
Joey said his father became an actor by accident. His passion was football. He was semi-pro during his college years until he broke his knee, permanently ending that dream. Joey explains, “After bumming around for a while, he met and fell in love with my mother, Maria. They met in Havana where she and her sisters were working as showgirls at my grandmother's nightclub, called The Southland. He moved my mother and her entire family to New York, where he set them up in apartments and helped them find jobs.”
A good friend of Joe’s was a male model and actor Tony Tostoy. One day he accompanied his friend to an acting class in New York City. That was it! He was hooked! It was the early 1960's, and he had found his passion.
Following is a transcript of an interview I had recently with Joey Santos.
Jim Suva: How did your Dad meet James Garner and Stephen Cannell?
Joey Santos: Dad and Cannell go back a long way. My father did a few of his early shows and TV movies, Baretta and a show in ‘72-‘73 called Toma. Stephen Cannell liked my dad and when The Rockford Files was conceived, he brought him in right away. He read with Jim Garner and their chemistry was instant. Both friendships lasted throughout their lives.
Jim: What was your Dad and Garner’s relationship like?
Joey: They had a kinship. They liked each other's humor. They both loved sports. Jim taught my dad golf. They played together often as well as poker.
Jim: What was he like as a father?
Joey: Family was important. He was spontaneous, he loved the outdoors, movies, theatre, music, sports. He loved the ocean. Rollercoasters. He always made time for us. Took us on amazing trips. He taught us manners. He was very proud of us. Wanted us to be the best for ourselves. Taught us the value of time and energy. He was extremely generous. Gave us freedom and consequences when poor decisions were made. Loving, forgiving and kind. Funny. Told great stories. Sang us funny songs at bedtime. Was inclusive with our friends. Always gave us the best of everything. Beautiful homes, expensive cars. He was one of a kind.
Jim: When did your Dad start teaching acting?
Joey: Early 90's. He decided to reinvent himself as an actor. Wanted to find a new approach to his craft and interpretation. Got acquainted with Director and Beverly Hills Playhouse Founder, Milton Katselas. He started taking the Saturday Master Class every week. That went on for a couple of years. Then he began substituting the class for Milton. That turned into Milton asking him to take over the Tuesday/Thursday classes. He taught there for 10 years. He was extremely passionate and loyal to his students. Taking them on one on one whenever they need it. This became something my Father felt most proud of and accomplished by. Eventually, starting his own school and refusing to take money from students. Their tuition was simply, write a poem or bake cookies for the other classmates.
Jim: On the different shows/movies he worked on, what were his two favorite characters?
Joey: He never spoke much about that. He sorta was critical of himself. He did say that he was grateful for Becker. He also liked some of his early film roles like, Shamus with Burt Reynolds and Zandy's Bride with Liv Ullman and Gene Hackman.
Jim: Any stories with your Dad and Garner, Cannell or Juanita Bartlett that you would like to share.
Joey: I know he was extremely fond of Juanita. He felt she knew how to write for him.
Jim: Who did your Dad look up/admire as an actor?
Joey: He loved Brando. Nicholson. He liked Edward G Robinson, Cagney, Bogart. Loved William Holden. Anthony Quinn and he did three films together and were good friends. Robert Mitchum. He always said that working with Jim never felt like work. And Jim's dialogue never sounded like dialogue. That allowed him some of their best work together.
Jim: Did he enjoy acting or teaching more?
Joey: He loved both. But the joy he felt when he saw someone else shine gave him extreme happiness.
One other interesting story Joey told me was that his Dad was offered Rockford as well as the TV series, Planet of the Apes. When he came home he told Joey. Of course Joey had seen the movie and told his Dad to take the Planet of the Apes show. His Dad went to his agent and took Rockford. Apes only last a couple of episodes. Joe told Joey he would never make a good agent. Pictured below is Katy Garver, Stephen Cannell and Joe.
Joe Santos died on March 18, 2016. He is missed greatly by his fans. We thank him for leaving us with Lt. Dennis Becker, Lt. Frank Harris, Angelo Garepe and all of the other characters he played.
Here is a link to Joe Santos screen credits: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0764134/