Abe Vigoda, known for his roles as Detective Phil Fish in television’s Barney Miller and Mafia lieutenant Sal Tessio in the Godfather movie, died Tuesday, January 27, 2016, at the age of 94. Repeatedly reported dead over the years, a chronic case he treated as a standing joke, the veteran actor finally did succumb at the New Jersey home of his daughter, Carol Fuchs.
According to CNN, Abe, despite being repeatedly mistaken for dead, was a very fit handball player and jogger, although his character, Detective Fish, complained about his aches and pains, his bladder problems, and hemorrhoids, suggesting he was on his last legs.
Vigoda gave an example of how fans assumed he really had Detective Fish’s ailments.
“I was sitting in a restaurant when this young lady came up and asked for my autograph. Then she said, ‘I hope your hemorrhoids aren’t bothering you too much.’ She was very serious. I said, ‘You must be joking.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not. I just don’t want you to worry about it because I have them, too.’ “
In a Washington Post interview, Abe related his 1977 restaurant encounter with the commiserating lady. Vigoda told her that he did not have hemorrhoids in real life, but she did not believe him.
Rumors of his death started in 1982 when People Magazine repeatedly used the phrase “the late” before Abe’s name. Sixty-years old at that time, Vigoda, who was in a stage play in Calgary, gamely posed for Variety, which featured a snapshot of him sitting up in a coffin, brandishing the issue of People with the gaffe.
The same mistake was repeated in 1987 when a WWOR television reporter in Secaucus, New Jersey, called him “the late Abe Vigoda.” Belatedly realizing her mistake, she admitted to it the next day, but too late for viewers who had all night to absorb his demise.
Mistaken reports of his death returned to plague him in 1997 when he appeared in the film, Good Burger, as the character Otis the French Fry Man. In one scene, Otis responded, “I should’ve died years ago” to jokes about his advanced age, which came back to haunt him during a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. There a salesman told the actor he looked like Abe Vigoda, which couldn’t be “because Abe Vigoda is dead.”
Later, talk show host David Letterman tried to summon Abe’s ghost on A Late Night with David Letterman, prompting Vigoda to walk onstage with the memorable line, “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!”
Independent revealed that in addition to his screen roles, he worked in the theater for 30 years. He played John of Gaunt in Richard II and Abraham Lincoln in the short-lived Broadway comedy, Tough to Get Help.
As he advanced in age, he became known for the following statement.
“When I was a young man, I was told success had to come in my youth. I found this to be a myth. My experiences have taught me that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, success can come at any age.”
Even as a youngster, Abe Vigoda always played characters older than his actual age. He related a story to the St. Petersburg Times in 1996, about his first-grade teacher casting a play and needing someone to be a 50-year-old baron who finds his wife in the closet with a strange man.
“She asked if any of us would like to audition, and about 30 of us raised our hands, but she looked at me and said, ‘I think you’ll do because you look old.’”
Another reference to Abe’s passing came in the 1998 New York Friars Club roast of Drew Carey, with Vigoda in the audience. Comedian Jeff Ross joked that his one regret was that Abe Vigoda “isn’t alive to see this.”
Ross followed up with the famous one-liner.
“Drew, you’re a big gambler, what’s the over-under on Abe Vigoda?”
With the Internet coming of age, fans could quickly find out whether Abe was living via a website dedicated to answering the question and by 2005, a Firefox extension could update curious browsers on Vigoda’s status.
According to ABC News, Abe Vigoda died Tuesday morning in his sleep at daughter Carol Fuchs’ home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. The determined cause of death was old age, to which Fuchs responded, “This man was never sick.”
[Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images]