Abe Vigoda, Actor from "Godfather" and "Barney Miller," Dies at 94 | Playbill

Obituaries Abe Vigoda, Actor from "Godfather" and "Barney Miller," Dies at 94 Abe Vigoda, the lovably curmudgeonly actor known for his hangdog turns in "The Godfather" and the sitcoms "Barney Miller" and "Fish," died Jan. 26 in his sleep at his daughter's home in Woodland Park, NJ. He was 94.

Mr. Vigoda brought a distinctive and often endearing dejection and resignation to his roles on film and television. In this, he was greatly aided by his long, mournful face and basset-hound eyes. He perpetually looked like someone who had just received, or was expecting to receive, bad news, and used that quality to communicate both deep drama and droll comedy, depending on the assignment. Most of the time, he played characters much older than he actually was—a circumstance that led to some macabre real-life comedy later on, when reports of his death were greatly—and frequently—exaggerated.

After a collection of Broadway and Off-Broadway stage roles in the 1960s, Mr. Vigoda unexpectedly blossomed into a name actor and fan favorite in the early '70s. His first significant film role was in Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark 1972 Mafia saga, "The Godfather," in which he played Salvatore Tessio, a seemingly loyal capo in the Corleone crime family. At the end of the film, he is caught in a betrayal of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, and taken away to be killed. Quickly sizing up the situation, Mr. Vigoda's character memorably uttered the line, "Tell Michael it was only business. I always liked him."

Two years later, he was part of the cast of the sitcom "Barney Miller," set in the detectives' quarters in a gritty, but whimsical Greenwich Village police station. As the disheveled, grumbling, slow-moving, old-school Detective Phil Fish, he offered deadpan ripostes to his bewildering arrests, and weary resignation to his unseen wife Bernice’s many phone calls. He quickly became the show’s breakout character. For three years running, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance.

After three seasons, Fish was spun out into his own show, "Fish," in which he played the beleaguered patriarch to five wisecracking foster children. The show lasted only one full season.

Mr. Vigoda’s career slowed after the cancellation of "Fish." He took guest roles on other television programs, and the occasional film part—notably in the Tom Hanks comedy "Joe Versus the Volcano" in 1990. But he never regained his earlier momentum. However, his previous successes continued to trail him. In the ‘00s, he provided the voice of Tessio to a series of "Godfather" video games. Abraham Charles Vigoda was born Feb. 24, 1921, in Brooklyn, NY. He began actor in his teens. He began appearing on the Off-Broadway stage in 1961 with Shadow of Heroes, and followed it up with small roles in The Cherry Orchard, A Darker Flower and The Cat and the Canary. By 1967, he had landed a role in Peter Book’s landmark Broadway production of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade in the role of "Mad Animal." Broadway jobs in The Man in the Glass Booth, Inquest and Tough to Get Help (as Abraham Lincoln) followed, before "The Godfather" altered his career forever.

News of Mr. Vigoda’s death may have caused some observers with a good memory to do a double take. He was mistakenly reported as deceased in both 1982 and 1987. After that, his uncertain attendance among the quick or the dead became a running joke with comedians. On an episode of "Late Night With David Letterman," when the host tried to conjure up Vigoda’s ghost, the actor walked on stage and stated, "I'm not dead yet, you pinhead!" The rap group The Beastie Boys reminded the world of Vigoda’s existence when, on their hit 1986 debut "License to Ill," the comically boasted, "You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda."


He was married twice, first to Sonja Gohlke, then to Beatrice Schy, who died in 1992. Survivors include a daughter from his second marriage; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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