Image was everything in Hollywood, and Abe Vigoda's unusual look became his ticket to fame and fortune. The dour-faced character actor was best known for playing gritty Mafioso types, most notably as the scheming Tessio in "The Godfather" (1972) and and "The Godfather: Part II" (1974). But he was more than just a tough guy; he was also a gifted comedic actor. Audiences remembered him as the aging, cynical Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on the hit sitcom "Barney Miller" (ABC, 1975-1982) - a role that earned Vigoda Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for three years in a row, between 1976 and 1978. It wasn't until 1982, however, when the actor really made headlines after a People magazine article mistakenly reported he was dead. Vigoda had a good laugh over it and always appeared to be in on the joke. The question "Is Abe Vigoda still alive?" lasted for several years, resurfacing in skits for David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's late night shows, ironically giving the actor a new life as a beloved TV icon to generations of viewers not even born when he was stealing scenes on "Barnery Miller."
Abraham Charles Vigodah was born on Feb. 24, 1921 in New York City. His parents, Lena and Samuel Vigodah, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His brother Bill later became a comic book artist. Young Vigoda made his stage debut at age 17 and was a prolific theater actor in New York and on the road for more than 20 years. His Broadway credits include "Marat/Sade" (1967); "The Man in the Glass Booth" (1968); "Richard II," where he played John of Gaunt for the New York Shakespeare Festival; "Tough to Get Help" (1972) as Abraham Lincoln, and many others. He also played the straight man for Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn on the variety show "All Star Revue" in the early 1950s.
Vigoda was already in his fifties when he hit the big time. His performance as the double-crossing mobster Tessio in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) launched his film career. Coppola said he selected Vigoda from an open casting call of 500 unknown actors who auditioned for the role. In a memorable scene from the film, he pleaded with Robert Duvall to get him off the hook "for old time's sake." He also appeared in the movie's equally successful sequel in 1974. After that life-changing role, Vigoda took on numerous film projects including "Cannonball Run II" (1984), "Joe Versus the Volcano" (1990), "Sugar Hill" (1994) and "Look Who's Talking" (1989) as John Travolta's 100-year-old grandfather. He also lent his voice to bring to life Salvatore "The Wheezer" Valestra, one of Gotham City's most powerful crime bosses in "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" in 1993. But Vigoda scored his most memorable role as Sgt. Fish on the dry police precinct sitcom "Barney Miller," starring Hal Linden as the title character, surrounded by a series of eccentric boobs who just happened to be his fellow police officers. Vigoda's deadpan delivery made him a TV star and even provided him his own spin-off series, "Fish" (ABC, 1977-78), where he played a retired police officer that had to deal with troublesome schoolchildren.
Although Vigoda often looked lifeless and haggard as Sgt. Fish, the actor certainly never imagined his looks would fuel a rumor that refused to fade for decades. In 1982, People magazine erroneously referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." While the actor insisted that the error cost him acting jobs, he took it all in stride, even posing for a photograph showing him sitting up in a coffin, holding up the magazine. The rumor started up again in 1987 when a television reporter mistakenly referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." From that moment on, questions and rumors of Vigoda's "demise" became such a long running pop cultural joke, that late night TV hosts loved to incorporate him into their offbeat skits from time to time. During one "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) skit, the host was shown trying to summon Vigoda's ghost. The actor suddenly walked in and declared, "I'm not dead, you idiot!" Vigoda was also a recurring guest on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC, 1993- ). During a 2006 sketch, O'Brien showed an audience member summoning the dead; of course the "deceased" person was Vigoda. During "Comedy Central Presents: The N.Y. Friars Club Roast of Drew Carey" (Comedy Central, 1998), with Vigoda present in the office, comedian Jeffrey Ross announced "and my one regret is that Abe Vigoda isn't alive to see this." In 1999, the persistent rumor almost came true when Vigoda was a passenger on an American Airlines flight that lost pressure at 31,000 feet. The plane made an emergency landing and everyone survived. The website, www.abevigoda.com, was even created for the sole purpose of announcing whether the actor was still alive or not.
By Marc Cuenco