Actor Abe Vigoda, best known for his roles as mobster Tessio in “The Godfather” and as Detective Sgt. Fish in TV’s “Barney Miller” and a spinoff series in which he starred, has died. He was 94 and died in New Jersey of natural causes, his daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs told the Associated Press.
The tall character actor with the characteristically slouched shoulders and hangdog face became something of a pop culture figure due to repeated false reports of his demise, which became the subject of jokes. Reflecting his somewhat odd celebrity was the existence of a punk rock band named Abe Vigoda; his recurring appearances in the late 2000s on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”; and the existence of a website named Isabevigodadead.com, which for years consisted simply of a blank page with the word No.
Vigoda made his feature debut in a bit part in Marcel Carne’s 1965 effort “Three Rooms in Manhattan,” but the stage actor was essentially unknown when he was cast in “The Godfather” as the ultimately disloyal Tessio in 1972, having landed the part in an open call. In the wake of “The Godfather,” in which Vigoda managed to make an impression despite the amount of high-powered acting talent in the film, the middle-aged actor became in demand. On the bigscreen, he appeared in the 1973 mob drama “The Don Is Dead” and 1974 crime drama “Newman’s Law,” and he reprised his role as Tessio in a flashback in “The Godfather: Part II.”
Younger audiences might recognize him as the tribal chieftain in the Tom Hanks comedy “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990), which was a box office failure but developed a cult following.
Meanwhile, after a few guest roles on TV series, Vigoda was cast as the aged, malady-laden and slow-moving cop Phil Fish in ABC police sitcom “Barney Miller,” which started its long run in 1974. The character was so popular that the network launched a spinoff, simply titled “Fish,” in 1977. For a while, Vigoda appeared on both series. (The actor riffed on his cop role in Peter Falk feature comedy “The Cheap Detective” in 1978.) Vigoda also guested on series including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Kojak,” “The Bionic Woman,” “The Rockford Files” and “Eight Is Enough.”
Born in New York, Abraham Vigoda made appearances in very early television — episodes of “Suspense” and “Studio One in Hollywood” in 1949 and an episode of “All Star Revue” in 1951 — but then disappeared from the medium until he began guesting on series starting with “Dark Shadows” in 1969.
In between he appeared onstage in New York, including roles in “Richard III” in 1960 and 1961, “The Cherry Orchard” in 1962-63, “A Darker Flower” in 1963 and “The Cat and the Canary” in 1965. He first hit Broadway with a role in a revival of “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat” in 1967, followed by “The Man in the Glass Booth” in 1968-69 and “Inquest” in 1970.
During the 1980s and ’90s, he appeared on shows including “The New Mike Hammer,” “Tales From the Darkside,” “MacGyver,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Law and Order” and “Wings”; he also did stints on a pair of soaps, “As the World Turns” and “Santa Barbara.” In 1998 Vigoda played gangster Paul Castellano in the NBC telepic “Witness to the Mob.”
The actor also enjoyed steady film work, including in “Joe Versus the Volcano.” He played the judge in the Pauly Shore comedy “Jury Duty” and appeared in small roles as grandpas and gangsters in a stream of low-profile pics during the 1990s and 2000s.
In 1986-87 he starred on Broadway in a revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
During the 2010 Super Bowl, Vigoda appeared with Betty White in a commercial for Snickers candy bars.
Vigoda’s wife Beatrice died in 1992. He is survived by a daughter.