While mistaken reports of the man’s death have become sort of a morbid running gag in the last several decades, today saw the actual demise of prolific character actor Abe Vigoda at age 94. Vigoda passed away of natural causes at his daughter’s New Jersey home, after several days of hospice care. He is survived by the aforementioned daughter Carol, three grandchildren and a great-grandson. Vigoda was also married twice, although both of his wives have long since passed away.
Vigoda was born in 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Vigoda began acting in theatre during his teen years, eventually beginning his professional career in the late 1940s. Blessed with a distinctive tall and lanky yet stern look, Vigoda would become best known for playing roles of authority and imposition, such as cops, mobsters, and judges. At the same time, Vigoda possessed a noted gift for deadpan comedy, with his severe appearance often belying his comic timing.
Vigoda is perhaps best known for the role of mobster Salvatore Tessio in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 legendary crime film The Godfather. So memorable was Vigoda that he was invited back to portray Tessio again in a flashback sequence during The Godfather: Part II, despite having been whacked in the original. Vigoda would also reprise the Tessio role in vocal form for the 2006 Godfather video game.
Ranking right up there in stature with his Godfather work is Vigoda’s three-season run as Sgt. Phil Fish on the classic police station-set sitcom Barney Miller. Fish was world-weary and suffered from more than one medical issue, but proved to be a very capable detective when the going got tough. Vigoda’s tenure as a regular on the series lasted from 1975-1977, with him getting a fond farewell in the two-part premiere of season 4. The Fish character was then spun-off into his own series, which wasn’t long for this world. Vigoda also received three Emmy nominations for his work on Barney Miller in 1976, 1977, and 1978.
Vigoda has nearly 100 total acting credits on his resume, encompassing both movies and TV and dabbling in practically every genre imaginable. No matter if the project was a low budget horror movie, a wacky comedy, or a prestige drama, Vigoda could always be counted upon to deliver a memorable performance. Abe Vigoda leaves behind a body of work that any actor could be proud of.
R.I.P. Abe Vigoda: February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016