Stuart Margolin, Emmy-winning ‘Rockford Files’ actor, dies at 82


Stuart Margolin, a veteran actor and television director who won back-to-back Emmy Awards for “The Rockford Files,” in which he played the weaselly pal — and comically dishonest foil — of James Garner’s struggling detective character, died Dec. 12 at a hospice center in Staunton, Va. He was 82.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Patricia Margolin.

Mr. Margolin, a craggy-faced character actor who was often cast as authority figures, debuted on-screen in 1961 and remained a TV mainstay for six decades. He appeared in episodes of “Gunsmoke” and “M.A.S.H.” as well as more recent series like “The X-Files” and “30 Rock,” as a World War II veteran believed to be the potential biological father of network head Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin).

But he remained best-known for playing Evelyn “Angel” Martin on NBC’s “The Rockford Files,” which ran from 1974 to 1980. Departing from detective-drama conventions, the series starred Garner as Jim Rockford, a down-and-out private investigator exasperated by criminals, money troubles, crooked cops and his shifty friend Angel, with whom he once shared a cell at San Quentin.

Mr. Margolin “radiated sleaziness and personified sly treachery with a winning charm,” author George V. Higgins wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He was twice honored with the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, in 1979 and 1980, and later reprised the role in a series of TV movies, in addition to reuniting with Garner for the short-lived western show “Bret Maverick.”

“Angel is a weasel,” Garner wrote in a 2011 memoir, “The Garner Files.” “He double-crosses Rockford again and again. He’s always getting in trouble, and Rockford always has to bail him out. … I confess that I’ve never understood why Rockford likes Angel so much, because he’s rotten to the core. But there’s something lovable about him. I don’t know what it is, but it’s all Stuart’s doing.”

Mr. Margolin started acting at age 8, playing Puck in a local theater production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But he “had no great burning desire to be an actor,” he recalled, and instead “had inclinations to show off, make a spectacle of myself” — a tendency toward mischief-making that resulted in his getting kicked out of public schools in Texas and running up a “long list of traffic violations.”

By his early 20s, he was channeling that energy into art, moving into acting, songwriting and eventually screenwriting and directing. Mr. Margolin wrote the screenplay for the made-for-TV movie “The Ballad of Andy Crocker” (1969), one of the first films to address the struggles of Vietnam veterans returning home from war, and helmed episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Wonder Woman” and “Touched by an Angel,” among many others. He received an Emmy nomination in 1987 for his work on “The Tracey Ullman Show.”

Naturally, he also directed a couple episodes of “The Rockford Files,” after overcoming skepticism from network executives who questioned his performance as Angel.

“NBC didn’t want Stuart in the show, but I was crazy about him,” Garner wrote in his memoir. The actors had first worked together on “Nichols,” a western that aired for one season, with Mr. Margolin playing a backstabbing deputy to Garner’s motorcycle-riding sheriff — essentially an early version of his Angel character.

After Mr. Margolin appeared in the pilot of “Rockford,” Garner continued, “NBC said they didn’t like his performance, but we put him in a second episode anyway, then a third. NBC still didn’t want him and they told us point-blank not to use him again. Then he got an Emmy nomination.

“ ‘Do you think we can get him for next year?’ they said.”

Mr. Margolin soon signed “a pretty good deal” with the network, as Garner told it, and appeared in nearly 40 episodes of the show.

The second of four children, Stuart Margolin was born in Davenport, Iowa, on Jan. 31, 1940. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a salesman — his wares ranged from air conditioners to advertisements in the Yellow Pages — whose work led the family to move to Dallas and Scottsdale, Ariz., where Mr. Margolin graduated from high school.

After moving to California to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, he made his TV debut in the sitcom “Mrs. G. Goes to College.” His older brother, Arnold, also got into television, working as an executive producer and writer on “Love, American Style,” an anthology comedy series that aired from 1969 to 1974. Mr. Margolin became a series regular and launched his directing career on the show.

His other directing credits included “The Glitter Dome” (1984), an HBO crime drama starring Garner, Margot Kidder and John Lithgow, which Mr. Margolin also co-produced, acted in and — in his down time — wrote the soundtrack for.

By then he had branched into movies, appearing opposite Charles Bronson in “The Stone Killer” (1973) and “Death Wish” (1974) and with James Caan in “The Gambler” (1974). He was also a mill foreman in Terrence Malick’s twilight-drenched classic “Days of Heaven” (1978) and appeared in comedies by Blake Edwards, including as Julie Andrews’s secretary in “S.O.B.” (1981) and a bumbling criminal in “A Fine Mess” (1986).

His marriage to Joyce Eliason, a writer and producer, ended in divorce. In 1982, he married Patricia Dunne, decades after they met at a Texas courtroom, where Mr. Margolin was a defendant and Dunne was a “juvenile judge,” participating in a reform initiative in which young people were judged by their peers.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three stepchildren: Max Martini, an actor; Christopher Martini, a director; and Michelle Martini, a costume designer; as well as two brothers, a sister and four grandsons. Both stepsons worked with Mr. Margolin on the 2020 movie “What the Night Can Do,” which was directed by Christopher and featured a cast that included Max and Mr. Margolin, who also wrote the screenplay.

In a phone interview, his wife said that Mr. Margolin had been working on a musical, “Candy Barr,” based on the life of a notorious stripper and burlesque dancer he interviewed decades earlier. The actor and dancer apparently hit it off: Mr. Margolin told the Toronto Star in 1989 that he and Barr once got so drunk in Los Angeles that he tried to check himself into a hospital at 4 a.m., hours before he was supposed to report to the set of “The Rockford Files” to play Angel.

Fortunately, the con-artist part was far from his most demanding role, even if it was one of his most enjoyable.

“I was so blotto,” he said with a laugh. “They just told me to walk it off … so I walked onto the set that morning, did a take and they loved it. What other part could you do that?”

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