Abe Vigoda Dies at 94

The character actor, known mostly for his mobster roles and as Detective Fish in 'Barney Miller,' died on Tuesday from natural causes at the age of 94.
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Abe Vigoda Barney Miller Photo

Abe Vigoda as Detective Phil Fish in 'Barney Miller,' 1977. (Photo: ABC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Abe Vigoda is dead.

Really dead.

Gone. Kaput. End of story.

We mean it.

Dead as a doornail.

Is this a little…insensitive? No way. Rumors of Abe Vigoda’s death have circulated for 30 years—and no one enjoyed them more than he did.

The thing is, Vigoda always looked predeceased, even in his acting prime. Maybe that’s because that came to him in his 50s, when, with his permanently furrowed features, he looked to be in his 60s, or older. The first time he was reported dead, in 1982, it was no wonder people believed it; everyone thought he was 82. In fact he was 61, and an avid jogger and handball player. The picture of health, set in an aged frame. One of the biggest laughs on Barney Miller, his sitcom success, came when a suspect in the precinct house told his character, Detective Sgt. Phil Fish, that he looked like Boris Karloff, earning one of Vigoda’s trademark scowls. He did resemble the horror star, and his best-known creation, the Frankenstein monster, who died at the end of one movie, then was revived for the next.

Vigoda lived a few lives. He was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 24, 1921, to Jewish immigrants from Russia. He took up acting in his teens, and toughed out a long climb to the Broadway stage, where at age 46 he debuted in Peter Brook’s acclaimed Marat/Sade (1967). He played “Mad Animal.” A matinee idol he was not destined to be.

His mug was his fortune. A break came a few years later, when Francis Ford Coppola cast him and a few other gangster-looking types in The Godfather (1972). He played Tessio, who acts against the Corleone family and pays the ultimate price. Turning to consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) as he’s led away, he utters one of the movie’s most poignant lines: “Can you get me off the hook, Tom? For old times’ sake?”

No. It was the first death of Abe Vigoda.

Abe Vigoda Barney Miller Photo

Vigoda as Detective Fish in 'Barney Miller.' (Photo: Photofest)

Barney Miller came along in 1975. He said he was cast because he looked like he had hemorrhoids. Whatever—he got the job. And he played the crusty, grumpy, ailment-wracked Fish to perfection, so much so that after three seasons (which earned Vigoda three Emmy nominations) the character was promoted to his own, family-oriented spinoff. Fish lasted a couple of seasons.

As of 1978, Vigoda was a “Fish” out of water. He appeared in a few movies, like Look Who’s Talking (1989) and, with Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), wearing native garb as a Pacific island chieftain. His last Broadway show was a 1987 revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, in a role created by Karloff, where his resemblance to Karloff was again noted. He and Betty White poked fun at their longevity in a popular Super Bowl commercial in 2010. As one of the “Abe Vigoda Dancers,” he dressed as a wombat for a Phish concert on Halloween 2013.

It’s a living. Mostly, he kept busy by dying.

In an episode of Barney Miller, a bureaucratic error “killed” the annoyed Fish. In 1982, in People magazine, an editing error “killed” Vigoda. He recovered long enough to pose for a photo in a coffin, holding up the mistaken magazine.

Five years later, a New York TV station announced his death, again prematurely.

Vigoda’s un-death became a bit, a punchline for late night talk show hosts.

David Letterman proved he was still alive, if only for a moment:

Letterman, refusing to let a good gag die, also tried to summon Vigoda’s ghost, only to have the actor appear and chastise him: “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!” 

Conan O’Brien never let the joke go. Death wasn’t the half of it: Vigoda cameos, some just seconds long, were a staple of his show, as the actor’s sourpuss was always good for a laugh. In 2013, O’Brien told the Vulture website: “We had Abe Vigoda on as a guest because I loved television of the seventies. And there was this rumor that he was dead. So we had Abe Vigoda on, and he came out and said, ‘I’m here to say one thing: I’m not dead.’ Everybody always assumed that he was dead, because he always looked old. And you could see right away that the audience loved him. So we said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. He’s fantastic, everyone knows who he is, he’s got that iconic face, and he’s great at deadpan.’ So we started using him for everything.” On the final Late Night in 2009, the host, sobbing, released a caged Vigoda “into the wild,” in Central Park. 

Sometimes he had the last laugh. Vigoda long outlasted a Twitter page marking his status above ground. And the L.A. punk band he inspired, called Abe Vigoda (their songs included “Dead City” and “Skeleton”), expired in 2014.

The jokes kept on coming, right up through to the end.

A Vigoda deathwatch website went up in 2001, with a “premortem mix” of Bauhaus’ song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

And there's an app for “America’s 2nd favorite Abe.” 

But now you’re finally at rest, Abe. Goodbye. Alive or dead, we loved you.

(But mostly dead.)