NEW YORK — Actor Abe Vigoda, who played the decrepit Detective Phil Fish in the television sitcom “Barney Miller” and Mafia lieutenant Sal Tessio in the original “Godfather” movie, died Tuesday, according to his manager, Sid Craig.
He was 94 years old.
Vigoda passed away at the New Jersey home of his daughter, Carol.
Though Vigoda achieved a good bit of fame from his 1970s “Godfather” role, his years on “Barney Miller” and the short-lived spinoff “Fish,” he arguably became best known for being alive despite reports of his premature demise.
“I hope he knew about our tribute, and I hope he was amused by it. Our intent was always to bring a smile by pointing to his longevity, which was an inspiration,” said Sun Sentinel reporter Rafael Olmeda, who ran Vigoda-themed social media pages.
A noted New York stage actor by the time Francis Ford Coppola came calling about “The Godfather,” Vigoda had not read the book and wasn’t thinking about mobster roles; he was Jewish, not Italian.
But Coppola liked him as a mobster, and he won the role of Tessio in the 1972 original and returned for the 1974 sequel.
“The Godfather” was his first really big job, and he remembered a car being sent for him every day of shooting and sitting near Marlon Brando during makeup.
“I found him to be a quiet man. He kept mostly to himself,” Vigoda told CNN in 2008. “He was a great star. This was my first big thing: I felt lucky and grateful I was with these people.”
Notable to him was the presence of actual New York mob family members on the set. “They kept looking at me, as if to say, ‘What family is he from?’ ” Vigoda said. “It was fascinating.”
Robert Duvall, a “Godfather” co-star, remembered Vigoda in a statement.
“We had some great memories together and he will really be missed,” Duvall said
The “Godfather” movies led to his successful run on “Barney Miller,” which ran from 1974-82 and starred Hal Linden as the title character. Vigoda was on the show until 1977.
“Abe was responsible for as much of the success of ‘Barney Miller’ as I was — easily. More so than me,” Linden told CNN. “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.”
Vigoda was nominated for three Emmy awards for his performance as Fish. In contrast to the very fit Vigoda, a dedicated handball player and jogger, Detective Fish complained about his aches, his pains, his bladder problems and hemorrhoids, always seeming on the verge of death.
Fans assumed he had the same ailments, he said.
“I was sitting in a restaurant,” he told the Washington Post in 1977, “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.’ ”
Only his character was plagued by hemorrhoids, Vigoda told her, but he said she didn’t believe him.
A ordinary person, like us
Many people liked Fish because he had many of the same ordinary problems they did, Vigoda told the Los Angeles Times in 1982.
“Like Fish, we all meet with rejection, and things are seldom easy, no matter what we do,” he said.
But it was the 1982 report of his premature death that caused him some consternation and was the basis of many jokes during his later years.
As the story goes, he didn’t attend a 1982 “Barney Miller” wrap party because he was doing a play in Canada. He was 60 at the time and very much not dead. But a People magazine writer assumed he wasn’t there because he was dead.
“Somehow it mentioned in the article that ‘the late Abe Vigoda’ was not (there),” Vigoda told CNN in 2008.
And thus, a joke was born, a joke that Vigoda eventually told as well.
People magazine acknowledged their mistake and awarded itself the Mark Twain Exaggerated Death Award “for announcing the demise of ‘Barney Miller’s’ Abe Vigoda before his time,” months after the article was published, but it was too late.
The actor would later say he lost out on some parts because casting agents thought he was dead. He even placed ads in Hollywood trade papers with him in a coffin to remind casting agents he was alive. But he joked about it on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
Vigoda was also featured in skits on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on NBC. (“Conan,” O’Brien’s current show, airs on Turner-owned TBS, which also owns CNN). And he’d occasionally stop by “The Today Show” to celebrate the birthdays of co-host Matt Lauer and former co-host Meredith Vieira, and Vieira once referred to him as “the very much alive Abe Vigoda.”
As the Internet became widespread, Vigoda — and his well-being — became a hit for a generation that knew him only through reruns.
People could quickly find out whether he was living through a website dedicated to answering that question.
Olmeda launched an “Abe Vigoda Facts” Facebook page and Twitter account to marvel at the longevity of Vigoda’s life.
“The running gag started in the summer of 2009, when the memorial for Michael Jackson was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles,” Olmeda said. “I speculated that Abe Vigoda, Ernest Borgnine and Zsa Zsa Gabor were in attendance — the joke being that no one expected those three to outlive the forever child, Michael Jackson.
“Over the years, untimely celebrity deaths gave rise to my growing amazement that Abe Vigoda was outliving so many people,” said Olmeda, who took to honoring those celebrities with Vigoda-themed quotes.
One of Olmeda’s favorite posts: “Let the joyous news be spread: Abe Vigoda is still not dead!” In honor of Ruth Robinson Duccini, the last female Munchkin.
Playing “old” in the first grade
Born February 24, 1921, Vigoda grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, the son of a tailor who studied acting at the American Theatre Wing and played character parts for much of his early career.
He had established a successful New York stage career in the 1960s when “Godfather” director Coppola noticed his work.
“The Godfather” changed Vigoda’s life, leading him to “Barney Miller,” “Fish” and movies such as “Cannonball Run II” (1984) with Burt Reynolds, “Look Who’s Talking” (1989) with John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, and “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990) with Tom Hanks. He also appeared in 1997’s “Good Burger.”
But even as a youngster, he always played older than his actual age.
“When I was in first grade in New York, a teacher came into the room and told us she was casting a play titled ‘Candlelight,’ ” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1996. “She said she needed someone to play 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,” he continued. “But she looked at me and said, “I think you’ll do because you look old.’ ”
Vigoda was married to his wife Beatrice for 24 years until her death in 1992. They had one daughter, Carol.