Actor Abe Vigoda, who played the dyspeptic 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.
In the 1980s, People magazine referred to Vigoda as “the late Abe Vigoda” in a story, leading to the belief by many that he was dead.
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.
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.
The same mistake was made in 1987 when a reporter for television station WWOR, Channel 9 in Secaucus, New Jersey, mistakenly referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda”. She realized and corrected her mistake the next day.
“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.
Vigoda always looked older than he actully was. In 1969 he played silversmith Ezra Braithwaite on Dark Shadows, and returned in the next episode to play the same character 70 years older.
In 1997, Vigoda appeared in the film Good Burger as the character Otis, a restaurant’s French fry man. Several jokes were made about his advanced age, including his character Otis saying “I should’ve died years ago.” That same year he was shopping at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when the salesman remarked, “You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda because he’s dead.” A Late Night with David Letterman skit showed Letterman trying to summon Vigoda’s ghost, but Vigoda walked in and declared, “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!”
At a New York Friars Club roast of Rob Reiner which Vigoda attended, comedian Billy Crystal wise-cracked, “I have nothing to say about Abe. I was always taught to speak well of the dead.”
In May 2001, a website was mounted with only one purpose: to report whether Vigoda was dead or alive. In 2005, a “tongue-in-cheek” Firefox extension was released with the sole purpose of telling the browser user Vigoda’s status.
Continuing with the gag, Vigoda appeared frequently to make fun of his status on the television show Late Night with Conan O’Brien, including a guest appearance on the show’s final episode.
In the 1998 New York Friars Club roast of Drew Carey, with Vigoda in the audience, comedian Jeff Ross joked, “my one regret is that Abe Vigoda isn’t alive to see this”. He followed that with “Drew, you go to Vegas; what’s the over–under on Abe Vigoda?”
On January 23, 2009, Vigoda appeared live on The Today Show. He said he was doing well, joked about previous reports of his death and announced he had just completed a voice-over for an H&R Block commercial to air during the Super Bowl.
Vigoda and Betty White, both 88 years old at the time, appeared in “Game”, a Snickers commercial that debuted during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010. The plot made fun of the advanced age of the actors. The Super Bowl Ad Meter poll respondents rated the ad the highest of any shown during the game.
Longtime radio and podcast host Don Geronimo frequently called Vigoda on-air whenever a big name celebrity died, which Vigoda took with obliging good humor. On the day following Vigoda’s death, Geronimo dedicated his daily subscription podcast to the memory of his friend and played many sound board/phone clips of their conversations over the years.
Vigoda was married to Beatrice Schy from February 25, 1968, until her death on April 30, 1992. He had one daughter, Carol, with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke.
Vigoda enjoyed playing handball, and stated in an interview that he was “almost” a champion at the game in his youth.
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