Abe Vigoda 1921-2016: Renowned Character Actor Dead At 94

Abe Vigoda is dead at 94. The renowned character actor is best known for playing Detective Phil Fish on the hit 1970s television show Barney Miler. He also dazzled on the big screen in a more serious role in The Godfather. Vigoda played double-crossing mobster Sal Tessio. Vigoda briefly reprised his role as detective Fish in a Barney Miller spinoff.

During his later years, Abe Vigoda perhaps became best known for merely being alive. Multiple hoax reports surfaced online announcing his death over the years. He took the reports in stride, grinning as he addressed each new rumor. The 94-year-old actor passed away at his New Jersey home on Tuesday with his daughter Carol at his side, CNN reports.

Before landing a role in the box-office smash The Godfather, Vigoda reportedly had not considered playing a mobster. He didn’t think his Jewish heritage would be an asset in a film about Italians, but he was wrong and was given a small but important part in the blockbuster movie. He had been spending his time acting in the New York theater before Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the big screen adaption of Mario Puzo’s best-selling book.

In The Godfather, Vigoda played Sal Tessio, a mobster who double-crossed the boss and paid the ultimate price for the betrayal. Abe was featured in both the original movie in 1972 and the equally popular sequel in 1974.

During an interview with CNN in 2008, the veteran character actor described how his life and career changed after getting his first big break with the part. Vigoda said that he was pleasantly surprised when a car was sent to shuttle him to the set each day, where he sat next to Marlon Brando in the makeup trailer.

“I found him [Marlon Brando] to be a quiet man. He kept mostly to himself. He was a great star. This was my first big thing: I felt lucky and grateful I was with these people,” Abe said.

Vigoda added that some real NYC mobsters were often around the set. He said the men frequently looked at him and seemed to ponder “what family” he was from. He deemed the entire experience “fascinating.”

Robert Duvall, of Lonesome Dove fame, was one of the stars in The Godfather. Upon hearing of Abe Vigoda’s death, he issued a statement about his former co-star.

“We had some great memories together and he will really be missed,” Duvall said.

After catching the attention of Hollywood in the Godfather movies, he won a spot on the television show Barney Miller. He starred alongside Hal Linden in the series. The show ran from 1974 to 1982, but Abe left the show in 1977.

Hal Linden credits Vigoda with being responsible for much of the success that Barney Miller achieved.

“We all owe a great debt of gratitude to a fine character actor who created a very memorable character that will go on and on, with all the re-runs. Thank God people will get to see what Abe did,” Linden said.

Vigoda said that he missed out on getting asked to do some parts for which he would have been a great fit because people kept thinking he was dead. At one point, Abe bought some ads in Hollywood trade papers that showed him grinning inside a coffin just to remind directors and producers that he was still above ground.

Abe also appeared in some hilarious skits on the Late Nigh with Conan O’Brien show on NBC, Cannonball Run II with Burt Reynolds, Look Who’s Talking with John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, Joe Versus the Volcano with Tom Hanks, and the movie Good Burger, IMDb notes.

Vigoda was nominated for three Emmy awards during his stint on Barney Miller. Unlike the character of Detective Fish, who often complained about a host of physical ills, Abe was an avid jogger and handball player even into his later years.

[Photo by Starpix/Marion Curtis/AP]