NEW YORK — David Margulies, a versatile character actor who performed in scores of supporting stage, film, and television roles but was most conspicuous as the common-sense mayor in “Ghostbusters” and as Tony Soprano’s sleazy lawyer, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.
The cause was cancer, his sister, Vicki Margulies, said.
Mr. Margulies performed on Broadway as the father in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” as Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and in four episodes of “Law & Order.” He will also appear as Elie Wiesel in next month’s ABC-TV miniseries “Madoff.”
In the hit HBO drama “The Sopranos,” Mr. Margulies played lawyer Neil Mink in eight episodes, including the finale, in 2007, in which he warned Tony, the mob boss played by James Gandolfini: “Somebody’s giving grand jury testimony on something. We don’t know who. Subpoenas are flying.”
In “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Ghostbusters II” (1989), he played the mayor, Lenny Clotch, who evoked the incumbent New York mayor at the time, Edward Koch.
In the sequel, Mr. Margulies invokes a former mayor (“I spent an hour last night in my bedroom talking to Fiorello La Guardia, and he’s been dead for 40 years”) and expresses skepticism that the citizenry’s obnoxious behavior is to blame for the river of pink slime that is inundating the city.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asks the Ghostbusters team. “Go on television and tell 10 million people they have to be nice to each other? Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s God-given right.”
Mr. Margulies himself was generally well treated by reviewers. His notices were sometimes larger than his roles.
In 1988, when he appeared in the WPA Theater production of Larry Kramer’s “Just Say No,” Mel Gussow in his review in The New York Times said Mr. Margulies “plays his role dryly, as if he had been minted by Oscar Wilde.”
When he costarred in Herb Gardner’s “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway in 1992, playing a Yiddish theater actor, Frank Rich of The Times described his character as “a magical repository of his artistic and ethnic heritage, especially in a transporting scene in which he performs excerpts from all his shows, from ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Dybbuk,’ while pulling props from a carpetbag.”
Mr. Margulies’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his sister, he leaves a son, Jonathan; his longtime companion, actress Lois Smith; and a grandson.
David Joseph Margulies was born in Manhattan on Feb. 19, 1937, the son of Harry Margulies, a lawyer, and the former Runya Zeltzer.
He attended the School of Performing Arts (now Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and City College of New York.
He made his off-Broadway debut in 1958 in “Golden 6.” His first film role was in Elaine May’s 1971 comedy “A New Leaf.” He appeared on Broadway for the first time in 1973 in Theodore Mann’s Circle in the Square revival of “The Iceman Cometh.”
He had wanted to be an actor since just after World War II, when he was barely a teenager. He and his family were summering at a bungalow colony in northern Westchester called Shrub Oak Park when he auditioned for a play there directed by Dorothy Delman, a Yiddish actress. (At the same colony, the family heard an unknown folk singer named Pete Seeger serenade vacationers with left-wing labor anthems.)
Delman cast him in the starring role.
“We said, ‘This kid should be an actor,’ ” she recalled, “and I think that’s when the bug got him.”