Stuart Margolin, the character actor and James Garner buddy best known for portraying the smarmy yet sweet con man Evelyn “Angel” Martin on The Rockford Files, has died. He was 82.
Margolin died Monday, his stepson, actor Max Martini (The Unit), reported on Instagram. Another stepson, director Christopher Martini, told The Hollywood Reporter that Margolin died of natural causes in Staunton, Virginia.
Margolin also brought his manic, manipulative persona to the Blake Edwards films S.O.B. (1981), as a star’s (Julie Andrews) insidious personal assistant, and A Fine Mess (1986), as a bumbling crook in the filmmaker’s homage to slapstick.
Margolin appeared opposite Charles Bronson in The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1974) — both directed by Michael Winner — playing a contractor who arranges mob hits in the former and the guy who gives Bronson’s revenge-seeking Paul Kersey the gift of a revolver in the latter.
Margolin also proved to be a prolific TV director, helming episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman, Touched by an Angel, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Northern Exposure, Quantum Leap and, to be expected, The Rockford Files.
In 1970, when Garner was about to star as a sheriff of a small Arizona town on NBC’s Nichols — his first network series since Maverick — he needed a “sidekick who was a shifty-eyed, backstabbing rat, but also lovable” to play his scruffy deputy, he wrote in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files.
“We’d made screen tests but couldn’t find what we were looking for until one day I saw a clip from Love, American Style. It wasn’t a scene that should have gotten a laugh, but the actor was so good, he broke me up. I knew he was the one for the part.” (Margolin was playing a drunk who hit his head on the bars of his jail cell.)
Recalled Margolin in a 2017 interview: “I was being sought after as a young character actor and comedian until I had a choice to be on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or on Nichols with Jim Garner. I chose to work with Jim Garner because I thought I’d have more fun, which I never regretted.”
“It was a great series with great writers and the favorite show Jim ever did. It closed down after a year, and then I was approached by Jim’s executive producer and Stephen J. Cannell to be part of [NBC’s] The Rockford Files. So my career got a little bigger, I won a couple of Emmys, and I’ve had a real steady career over the years with a lot of parts.”
Indeed, Margolin received Emmys in 1979 and 1980 as best supporting actor in a drama series for his portrayal of Angel, a former San Quentin cellmate of Garner’s P.I. Jim Rockford who constantly finds himself in a jam. The Rockford Files ran for six seasons, spawned several telefilms and was a huge hit in reruns.
“I confess I’ve never understood why Rockford likes Angel so much, because he’s rotten to the core,” Garner wrote in his book. “But there’s something lovable about him. I don’t know what it is, but it’s all Stuart’s doing.”
Born on Jan. 31, 1940, in Davenport, Iowa, and raised in Dallas, Margolin attended a boarding school in Nashville and a private school in Dallas after he got booted out of several public schools.
He moved to New York to live with his older brother, Arnold, who was appearing on Broadway as a replacement actor in the original production of The Diary of Anne Frank, then attended summer theater camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he met Barney Brown, a man who mentored Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.
After graduating from Scottsdale (Arizona) High School in 1958, he followed Brown, now an acting teacher and director at the Pasadena Playhouse, to Southern California. He spent two years studying there, followed by another one back in New York.
Margolin made his onscreen debut in 1961 on an episode of CBS’ The Gertrude Berg Show, recurred as a Navy man on NBC’s Ensign O’Toole, starring Dean Jones, and kept busy with appearances on shows like Burke’s Law, The Fugitive, 12 O’Clock High, Occasional Wife and The Monkees.
On Love, American Style, he was part of an ensemble of actors, including Phyllis Davis, James Hampton and Barbara Minkus, who appeared every week in multiple blackout sketches that linked the scripted segments together. (His brother executive produced the anthology show, co-wrote the theme song and was a TV writer.)
Margolin’s first significant movie role came in the war film/caper flick Kelly’s Heroes (1970), where he played Pvt. “Little Joe.” (Telly Savalas was Master Sergeant “Big Joe.”)
He then showed up in The Gambler (1974) with James Caan, in the Westworld sequel Futureworld (1976), as a mill foreman in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and on a couple episodes of M*A*S*H.
When Garner returned to play Bret Maverick in 1981 for a new NBC series, Margolin came with him, playing a crooked character named Philo Sandeen who claimed to be an Indian scout and called himself Standing Bear.
Margolin also directed several telefilms starring Garner, including 1982’s The Long Summer of George Adams and 1984’s The Glitter Dome, and composed the score for those two as well. (Margolin had written several tunes recorded by Arizona rocker Jerry Riopelle, and he performed his own songs on a country rock album, And the Angel Sings, released in 1980.)
More recently, Margolin appeared on 30 Rock and The X-Files and with Richard Gere in Arbitrage (2012), and he wrote What the Night Can Do (2017), stepping in to also star when the original leading man, Martin Sheen, suffered an injury. His stepson Christopher directed.
In addition to his brother and stepsons, survivors include his third wife, Pat, and her daughter, costume designer Michelle Martini.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.