Alex Rocco had been acting in tough criminal roles for eight years when he finally landed a part as a police officer. “My mother is tickled pink that I play a cop in my new picture,” he said at a Copley Plaza news conference for the film “Detroit 9000” in 1973. “It is the first time I’ve played anything but hoods in the movies.”
He knew the territory of crime dramas from personal experience, having run with the Winter Hill Gang in Somerville about 55 years ago, when he was arrested three times and at one point served a sentence of several months in the Middlesex House of Correction.
Mr. Rocco was 79 when he died of pancreatic cancer Saturday in his Studio City, Calif., home, his stepson, Sean Doyle, told The Los Angeles Times.
As an actor, Mr. Rocco’s big early break was playing Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene in 1972’s “The Godfather,” uttering lines such as “you don’t buy me out, I buy you out” that became part of the film’s lore and memorably being gunned down during the bloodbath montage near the end of the movie — shot through his eyeglasses while lying on a massage table.
His biggest critical success, though, came from comedy, rather than gritty dramas. He portrayed the slick agent Al Floss in “The Famous Teddy Z,” a short-lived TV show that was canceled in its first season, despite substantial critical praise. In 1990, the Al Floss role brought Mr. Rocco an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series as he bested a competitive field that included “Cheers” actors Woody Harrelson and Kelsey Grammer.
The journey from Somerville bookie to Emmy-winning comedic actor was one Mr. Rocco never took for granted. He told the online entertainment site A.V. Club in 2012 that he left Boston in the early 1960s and “never got so much as a ticket after that. Somebody was looking out for me, I’ll tell ya’ that.”
In that interview, he said his jail time “basically turned my life around, because I said, ‘Oh, I’ll never be locked up again. They’re not taking away my privacy.’ ”
A leap year baby, Mr. Rocco was born in Cambridge on Feb. 29, 1936, with the name Alexander F. Petricone Jr.
A few days before Christmas in 1959, he was charged with registering bets during a State Police sweep of Somerville drinking establishments that netted more than two dozen arrests. “I learned to bet the Red Sox, the Celtics, Suffolk Downs,” Mr. Rocco recalled in a 2012 interview with the Boston Herald. “I thought it was a glorious life — pull up to the doughnut shop, spread out, and plan your day.”
As Alex Petricone, Mr. Rocco also was one of four men charged in a brawl in a Somerville diner. More dramatically, he was arrested in 1961 after the midday murder of Charlestown crime figure Bernard McLaughlin. A woman who was a nightclub entertainer told authorities that Mr. Rocco was the getaway driver and that Winter Hill Gang leader James “Buddy” McLean shot McLaughlin. Police arrested McLean and Petricone on suspicion of murder, but a month later, a grand jury declined to indict them.
McLean died four years later — one of several killed during battles between the Winter Hill Gang and McLaughlin’s gang. Mr. Rocco left the Boston area after serving his jail time for the diner episode, but while he was behind bars, his first wife, Grace, escaped injury when a bomb exploded in a car she was driving, blowing off the hood and sending it flying 50 feet into a nearby playground. She was in a car borrowed from Winter Hill Gang leader Howard T. Winter, authorities said. The Petricones divorced and Mr. Rocco headed west.
“I had to get out of the Boston area, so I flipped a coin and said, ‘Heads Miami, tails California,’ ” Mr. Rocco told the Globe in 1989. “I was in my mid-20s and came out here with no training. Acting wasn’t even in my mind.”
Actor Leonard Nimoy, who grew up in Boston’s West End, was instrumental in Mr. Rocco moving away from his bartending background. Once in Los Angeles, he took an acting class from Nimoy, who advised Mr. Rocco to take speech lessons to rid himself of his Boston accent.
Mr. Rocco dispensed with Petricone, too. “I knew they’d never accept a moniker like that at central casting,” he told the Globe in 1975. “I saw a bakery truck go by with the name ‘Rocco’ on it and that’s when I decided to become Alex Rocco.”
He also credited turning to the Baha’i faith with helping him get his life in order. “It has been my tranquilizer and comfort,” he said in the interview. “It has shown me the need of religion and has led me to peace and an appreciation of life.”
He landed his first film acting job in Russ Meyer’s “Motorpsycho!” in 1965. Mr. Rocco has more than 160 acting credits on the entertainment site IMDb, including “The Facts of Life,” which ran for nine seasons in the 1980s.
According to his IMDb biography, Mr. Rocco married Sandra Elaine Garrett in 1966. She died in 2002. Their son Marc Rocco, a film writer, director, and producer whose credits included “Murder in the First” and “Where the Day Takes You,” died in 2009. In a 1989 interview with The Los Angeles Times, he had said of his father: “Not only is Alex Rocco my father, he’s my favorite actor in the world.”
In addition to his stepson, Mr. Rocco leaves his wife, actress Shannon Wilcox, whom he married in 2005; a son, Lucien; a daughter, Jennifer; a stepdaughter, actress Kelli Williams; a sister, Vivian De Simone; and four grandchildren, according to The New York Times.
Mr. Rocco’s other roles included “The George Carlin Show” and voicing the head of the Itchy and Scratchy Studios on “The Simpsons” in the 1990s. Most recently, he appeared in “Magic City” on the Starz cable channel. He also was a voice of an ant in the 1998 children’s movie “A Bug’s Life,” which over the years turned into his biggest paycheck as the film played worldwide and sold well on DVD.
“I’ll always remember that,” he said in the A.V. Club interview, laughing about his good fortune. “Isn’t that amazing? You study all your life, you work really hard to do your best work onstage and onscreen, and then you make your best money playing an ant.”
He also appeared in Boston-based films such as 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Though other actors failed to sound as if they were from the Hub, Globe critics praised Mr. Rocco’s accent because it was the real deal. He needed only to summon the syllables of childhood.
Through his acting he developed friendships and working relationships with a host of Hollywood luminaries, including actors Robert Mitchum and Tom Hanks and directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet. “The Godfather,” though, was “without a doubt my biggest ticket anywhere,” he told A.V. Club. For the rest of his career, people asked him to leave phone messages for friends and relatives, quoting his famous lines from the film.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I’ve been leaving Moe Greene messages for 40 years.”