Abe Vigoda (1921 - 2016)

Character actor Abe Vigoda, best known for roles in the sitcom "Barney Miller" and the Oscar-winning movie "The Godfather," has died. He was 94.

Vigoda died in his sleep Jan. 26, according to his daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs. She told The Associated Press that he died of old age and "was never sick."

Vigoda began acting as a young man and took numerous roles in the early days of his career, but it wasn't until 1972 – two and a half decades after his first professional work in 1947 – that he got his big break. That break was thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, who had a role for Vigoda in his upcoming film "The Godfather." The role was Salvatore Tessio, a Mafia capo who betrays the Corleone family.

It was Vigoda's first film – he had been doing stage work – and it changed the course of his career. He began getting more roles, and in 1975, he took the offer that would make him a household name.

Vigoda was called in for an audition by producers who had seen and liked him in "The Godfather" and wanted to try him out for a new cop show – "Barney Miller." He landed the role and brought to life perennially grumpy Detective Sgt.  Phil Fish for the show's first three seasons.

"Barney Miller" was nothing incredibly new – it was one of dozens of cop shows that have made it to the small screen over the years – but it was well-written, award-winning, and popular with viewers, including real policemen. They found it a more realistic portrayal of precinct life than most cop shows, according to a New York Times op-ed by NYPD Detective Lucas Miller. 

Vigoda's Fish was a break from the mold, too: Far from the dashing, fast-talking detectives of other shows, he was a cranky older man whose hemorrhoids were the subject of many jokes, including a frequently seen doughnut cushion for his desk chair.

So popular was this unusual character that Vigoda was offered a spinoff, "Fish," in which he starred for two seasons in 1977 and 1978. "Fish" focused more on the detective's home life than his time at the precinct, depicting the detective and his wife, Bernice, as parents to a racially diverse bunch of foster children. 

In a 1976 interview with the Los Angeles Times on his midlife success, Vigoda showed an optimism that was unlike his gloomy character's demeanor: "I say to anyone, whether you're an actor or a lawyer or a carpenter, never give up. You can make it any time in your life. Success doesn't happen just in your youth."

Also setting Vigoda apart from his character was his love of sports and fitness. While Fish seemed happiest in his desk chair, Vigoda loved to jog – three to five miles a day, he told author-actor Louis Zorich – and was an avid handball player. In an interview with CNN, Vigoda credited handball for "(helping) me with my coordination all my life, including with my theater work. Coordination is the key in getting things done correctly." 


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Though Tessio and Fish were his most notable roles, Vigoda was in dozens of other movies, including “Look Who’s Talking,” “Joe Versus the Volcano” and “Good Burger,” and he was a cast member in the TV shows “Dark Shadows,” “As the World Turns” and “Santa Barbara.” A frequent guest on talk shows including “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Today Show,” Vigoda appeared on the final episode of the former and was declared “our favorite guest of all time” by Matt Lauer of the latter.

Perhaps as well-known as Vigoda’s career was the series of erroneous reports of his death. As early as 1982, when Vigoda was barely in his 60s, he was assumed dead when a People magazine story referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda.” Vigoda handled the error well, posing in a coffin, sitting up and holding a copy of the magazine with the mistake. Just five years later, the same error was made on TV station WWOR. It became a pop culture meme, one that Vigoda himself poked fun at during talk show appearances and in movie roles. 

Vigoda is survived by his daughter, Carol. He was predeceased by his wife, Beatrice Schy, in 1992. 

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