Famous for his roles as Salvatore Tessio in the Godfather and then as Phil Fish on the TV show Barney Miller, actor Abe Vigoda passed away at his daughter’s home in New Jersey.
Cause of death is listed as “old age.” Vigoda was 94 years old.
Vigoda had appeared on stage for 20 years and had small parts in movies and on television before he got his big break in the film, The Godfather. Vigoda got the part after an open audition, in which actors without agents could audition.
Tessio was the Corleone Family capo who turned on Michael Corleone in the Godfather, but he revealed himself as the traitor to the family and met his end when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) settled all family business at the end of the film.
“Tell Michael it was only business. I always liked him.” and then as the Corleone soldiers remove his gun, “Tom, can you get me off the hook, for old time’s sake?”
“Can’t do it Sally,” Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) replies.
In 1974 he became a beloved figure in American television when he co-starred on Barney Miller as Phil Fish, the world-weary detective suffering endlessly from his hemorrhoids. One of the best ensemble shows in the history of television, Vigoda, as Fish delivered such classic lines as, “Drinking should be done in the privacy of one’s home, where it’s necessary.” When Barney Miller said he thinks of Fish as an experienced investigator and would call him first, Fish replies, “You should call me first … I need time to put my teeth in.”
There was a spin-off titled Fish, but it lasted only two seasons. Reportedly Vigoda demanded more money before filming for the third season began and when he was denied, the show ended.
The producers of Barney Miller wanted Vigoda for the part and when they called him in the moment became a Vigoda classic. As told in the book, What Have You Done? The Inside Stories of Auditioning — From the Ridiculous to the Sublime by Louis Zorich:
“While living in Los Angeles, I’d jog three to five miles a day. One morning jogging, my agent calls about a new series called Barney Miller, saying, ‘Go there at once.’
Well, I was tired and exhausted … I must have run five miles that morning. I said. ‘I have to go home and take a shower.’
‘No, no, no. Go right now to Studio City, you’re very right for it, they know you from The Godfather, they want to see you.‘
‘With my shorts?’
Danny Arnold and Ted Flicker, the producers, look at me, I look at them, they look at me again. ‘You look tired.’
“Of course I’m tired, I jogged five miles this morning, I’m exhausted.’
“Yeah, yeah, tell me, you look like you have hemorrhoids.’
“What are you, a doctor or a producer?’ ”
In 1982 People magazine erroneously reported Vigoda had died. At the time he was performing in a play in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Vigoda was good humored about it and had a photo taken of himself in a coffin holding the issue of People that had the mistake. From then until his death, reports of Abe Vigoda became an ongoing gag in his life. He appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman when the TV host was trying to summon the ghost of Vigoda, who walked out and said, “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!”
Many people have actually believed he was dead for many years and even in recent months a few people were surprised he was still alive when an Abe Vigoda meme was going around Facebook.
Abe Vigoda was born Abraham Charles Vigoda on February 21, 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. He lived in Los Angeles for many years and despite the appearance of his character on Barney Miller, was a very active person, jogging up to five miles a day well into his golden years.
He passed away in his daughter’s home in Woodland Park, New Jersey, January 26, 2016.
There is no mistake this time.
Top photo: Abe Vigoda as the police detective Phil Fish on Barney Miller.
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