Mark Margolis, the journeyman actor who turned in a commanding performance as the vindictive drug runner Hector Salamanca, a man of few words and a bell, on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, has died. He was 83. Margolis died Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City following a short illness, his son, actor and Knitting Factory Entertainment CEO Morgan Margolis, announced.
A protégé of Stella Adler who did double duty as the legendary acting teacher’s personal assistant, Margolis also stood out as the Bolivian henchman Alberto the Shadow in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983); as the gravelly voiced landlord Mr. Shickadance looking for the rent in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994); and, from 1998-2003, as the HIV-infected mob boss Antonio Nappa on HBO’s Oz.
The Philadelphia native played an aging math teacher for Darren Aronofsky in Pi (1998), then showed up in the filmmaker’s next five movies: as the guy who keeps selling Mrs. Goldfarb’s (Ellen Burstyn) TV back to her in Requiem for a Dream (2000); as a priest in The Fountain (2006); as Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s (Mickey Rourke) landlord in The Wrestler (2008); as a ballet patron in Black Swan (2010); and as a “fallen angel” in Noah (2014).
Asked by The Hollywood Reporter in a 2012 interview why Aronofsky kept hiring him, he replied with tongue in cheek: “He thinks he has an obligation! I started with him on his first movie, the $60,000 Pi, when he was unknown. I chased him for three months because he kept lying to me about when I’d get my money. I finally threatened to call his mother, who was craft services on the film. Then he finally paid me.”
Margolis, who didn’t speak Spanish, made his first appearance as “Tio” Salamanca on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in March 2009 on the second episode of the AMC drama’s second season. A onetime enforcer to Mexican crime boss Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), his character is paralyzed and only able to communicate using facial expressions and a brass service bell fastened to his wheelchair.
In the spectacular season-four finale, “Face Off,” which aired in October 2011, Salamanca gets his revenge on drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) as part of a suicide mission, and he received an Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a drama series in 2012. (Hector Salamanca even got his own tribute website.)
Starting in 2016 with the second season of the Breaking Bad prequel Better Called Saul, Margolis got a second chance to play Salamanca as a younger man, before he became incapacitated.
“I was only coming onto Breaking Bad as far as I knew for that one episode, but there’s no accounting for taste, and the fans took a fancy to me,” he said. “Somebody asked me recently, ‘How did you manage to play such a horrible guy?’ and I said, ‘Have you talked to my friends?’ They’ll tell you I’m pretty miserable to begin with.”
Margolis was born into a Jewish family in Philadelphia on Nov. 26, 1939. His mother, Fanya, was a decorator who worked for a wallpaper company and did lots of painting, and his father, Isidore, was a factory worker.
He took his first acting class at 14, and after a year at Temple University, he moved to New York and studied drama with Adler at The Actors Studio (he would become a lifetime member). “My first impression of her was, ‘If God is a woman, this is him,’” he told Eric Broadbent in an Inside the Gilliverse interview in 2020. “She was larger than life. Everything that I know [about acting] came from Stella.”
In exchange for classes, he served as Adler’s personal assistant for nearly three years, getting her cabs, carrying her groceries back to her apartment opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art and checking coats for guests when she hosted a party.
“I had a real fixation with her,” he told The Observer in 2012. “I was 19 years old and she was 60. That’s what a turn-on she was.”
Margolis later studied with Alder’s rival, Lee Strasberg, for about a year but drifted away from acting and had trouble making ends meet. He managed a coffee house on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village — “I used to let Richie Havens sit there all night even though he didn’t have any money because I loved listening to his music,” he said in 2016 — built theatrical artwork installations and took geodesic domes to colleges all around the country.
He finally made his onscreen debut as a surly airplane passenger in the X-rated The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), then had small roles in Going in Style (1979), De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and Arthur (1981) before his nasty Alberto was killed by Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface.
“I am just a journeyman actor,” he once said. “Truth to tell, six months after Scarface, I had to take a job with a real estate development friend for a few months just to get by.”
Margolis landed a recurring role from 1985-89 as the surveillance expert Jimmy on the CBS crime drama The Equalizer, starring Edward Woodward.
His character in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura was named after a real landlord that director Tom Shadyac once had. For Mr. Shickadance, “They wanted a voice like something out of The Exorcist,” he said. “I had never seen The Exorcist, but I figured it was that.”
To play the silent Salamanca, Margolis said he took his cues from his late mother-in-law, Shirley.
“She was in a nursing home for many years in Florida, tragically, after suffering a stroke,” he said. “We used to visit her, and she couldn’t speak. But she’d get excited when we came in the room, and the left side of her mouth would always do these contortions where the lips would push out, almost like she was chewing tobacco. So I kind of stole that from her. I always say the role is an homage to Shirley, who was actually a 1930s Earl Carroll Follies dancer.”
Margolis said Gilligan phoned him to say they were going to kill off Hector on Breaking Bad — but he “would have a lot of fun doing it.”
His body of work also included the films The Cotton Club (1984), The Secret of My Success (1987), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), Absolute Power (1997), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), End of Days (1999), The Tailor of Panama (2001), Hardball (2001), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Defiance (2008) and Stand Up Guys (2012) and such TV shows as Santa Barbara, Law & Order, Californication, Person of Interest, American Horror Story, The Affair and Your Honor.
“Absolutely devastated to hear that we’ve lost Mark Margolis,” Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul writer-producer Peter Gould wrote Friday on Twitter. “Mark was brilliant, funny, a raconteur with a million stories. I miss him already.”
Added Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston on Instagram: “Mark Margolis was a really good actor and a lovely human being. Fun and engaging off the set, and (in the case of Breaking Bad and Your Honor) intimidating and frightening on set. His quiet energy belied his mischievous nature and curious mind … And he loved sharing a good joke. … Rest now, Mark and thank you for your friendship and your exceptional body of work.”
In addition to his son and his wife, Heide, Margolis’ survivors include his wife, Jacqueline, whom he married in June 1962; grandsons Ben, Aidan and Henry; and his brother and his wife, Jerome and Ann. He lived for years in Tribeca.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
In his interview with The Observer, Margolis said that the fans he met on the street “think that I’m some sort of rich guy, that everyone in the movies is making the kind of money Angelina Jolie is making,” he explained. “They don’t realize that most of my life has been a struggle.”