American Gangster: Don’t Meth With Breaking Bad’s Mark Margolis!

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Mark Margolis as Hector “Tio” Salamanca on Breaking Bad

“So you want to talk about Breaking Balls?”

Actor Mark Margolis was sitting in a streetside table at Josephine, the French café near his Tribeca apartment. The actor, who has an olive complexion and a fringe of white hair, is in constant motion: cracking jokes, doing impressions, and giving a running commentary on passers-by. After greeting a local by name, he turned back to us and smirked: “All these guys in the neighborhood wear the same thing: greased hair, white pressed pants … they all look like they’re about to take a meeting with John Gotti.” (These goodfellas have a tendency to ask the actor if he’s “woikin,” which irks Mr. Margolis. “I want to ask them, ‘Are you woikin?’”)

Mr. Margolis’s volubility might surprise anyone who recognizes the 72-year-old actor for his work on Breaking Bad. On the hit AMC series, he played Hector “Tio” Salamanca, a character who is paralyzed and unable to speak (save the odd flashback), communicating solely via a small brass service bell.
Ding ding ding!

Making his first appearance in the second season of the show—back when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was still ostensibly a good guy caught in a bad situation—Salamanca was introduced as the incapacitated uncle of ruthless meth kingpin Tuco. Ask not for whom his bell tolled! Prior to Tuco’s bloody demise, Salamanaca’s little chime became a surprisingly effective plot device: He used it to thwart Walter and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) when they tried to poison his nephew, then granted them a reprieve by declining to identify Pinkman to the police. (Tio would rather die than snitch.)

Subsequent seasons revealed Salamanca as more than just a geezer put out to pasture: As the former enforcer to Mexican crime boss Don Eladio, he still had enough sway to call in a few favors to avenge his nephew’s death. (Not that the process wasn’t laborious; when the hired guns showed up, Salamanaca needs to go through a whole Diving Bell and the Butterfly routine with letters on a Ouija board to let them know who to whack.)

Mr. Margolis was asked to describe the series. “It’s a show about a guy with lung cancer,” he said. “It’s a comedy.”

It was the finale of Season 4 that made Hector Salamanca a star: his suicide mission to destroy soft-spoken fried-chicken mogul-slash-drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Salamanca’s last stand might have been a figurative one, but no one will forget those final explosive dings, or the character’s furiously writhing face, now a popular meme. The intensity of that scene alone—which again, is played without the actor speaking a word—might have been enough on its own to earn Mr. Margolis his nomination for Best Guest Actor at this year’s Emmys.

Mark is “one of the sweetest, funniest gentlemen I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad’s creator, told The Observer. “Also, he’s one of the finest actors alive, regardless of whether the role requires him to speak or remain silent in a wheelchair, ringing a bell.”

“Mark has a distinct pedigree in the acting world and a respected reputation,” noted Mr. Cranston, “but his contribution on Breaking Bad came down to keeping it simple. And in our business, simple is hard. To convey a full range of emotion without saying a word, speaks volumes.”

In addition to his various TV roles, Mr. Margolis’ has appeared in every Darren Aronofsky film since taking a role as a math professor in the director’s breakout indie flick, Pi. You can spot him in brief flashes: As a ballet patron in Black Swan, a pawn shop owner in Requiem for a Dream, managing the trailer park that Mickey Rourke called home in The Wrestler. In The Fountain, Mr. Aronofsky created a role especially for Mr. Margolis: a “stoned priest.”

For Mr. Aronofosky’s upcoming biblical adaptation, Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Mr. Margolis traveled to Iceland to shoot several scenes; upon returning, Mr. Aronofsky tweeted, “Please give this legend an Emmy,” with a photo of the actor attached. He followed it up the next day: “to clarify: mark margolis an actor from my films is nom for his first Emmy. a veteran and legend an has never won anything. so help him win.”