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Abe Vigoda: 13 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Godfather,’ ‘Barney Miller’ Actor

Before there was Tessio, before there was Fish, Abe Vigoda made his name on the stage.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the actor who died Tuesday at 94 did everything from Shakespeare to musical comedies, from Broadway to Baltimore, from New Haven to San Francisco. His movie career took off after “The Godfather” in 1972, but he was still playing heavies on “Hawaii Five-0” and “The Rockford Files” after the first “Barney Miller” pilot aired in 1974.

Vigoda was such a fan favorite as “Barney Miller’s” Det. Fish that producers quickly ginned up a spinoff after the show’s first season. But behind the scenes, Vigoda and producers tussled publicly over money matters, a spat that played out in the pages of Variety like so many salary fights before and since.

Here are 13 things you didn’t know about Abe Vigoda:

  • Vigoda’s first appearance in Variety came in the April 26, 1950, weekly edition, which noted his upcoming guest shot on ABC’s “Buck Rogers” series.
  • Vigoda had a big month the following year when he logged back-to-back guest roles in May 1951 opposite Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn on NBC’s “Four Star Revue.”
  • The actor played a tyrannical military captain in the 1960 Off Broadway production of “Dance of Death,” August Strindberg’s tale of turn-of-the-century Scandinavian marital discord. Variety declared Vigoda to have delivered “an effective portrait.”
  • Through the rest of the 1960s Vigoda did everything from Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare festival — “Richard II” and “The Tempest,” where his castmates included James Earl Jones — to way, way out-of-town productions of “Naughty Marietta” and “Wish You Were Here.”
  • After “Godfather” triumphed in 1972, Vigoda was back to Broadway in Carl Reiner’s staging of “Tough to Get Help,” co-starring with future “Good Times” patriarch John Amos.
  • Vigoda’s was a face destined to be in cop shows. In 1973, he went from filming Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” to a supporting role in ABC’s back-door pilot/movie-of-the-week “Toma.” His co-stars included Nicholas Colasanto, future Coach of “Cheers.”
  • Vigoda finally made Army Archerd’s “Just For Variety” column in the Jan. 24, 1974, edition. The last line noted his casting as “a detective in the ‘Life and Times of Barney Miller’ pilot.”
  • The same year Vigoda did a guest shot on the 150th episode of the original “Hawaii Five-0” with future “Arrested Development” trouper Jessica Walter and Sam Elliott.
  • After the initial pilot for “The Life and Times of Capt. Barney Miller” crept on to ABC’s schedule in August 1974 and “Godfather II” proved another smash, Vigoda was still guesting as heavies on such TV dramas as “The Rockford Files” and “Cannon.”
  • Once the revised “Barney Miller” pilot (with slimmed-down title) made a big impression in January 1975, ABC sent Vigoda out on a four-city promotional tour.
  • By September of 1975, the pilot for spinoff “Fish and Bernice” was seen as the hottest property on ABC’s development slate.
  • A year later, there was strife in the 12th Precinct. “Barney Miller” producer 4D Productions filed suit against Vigoda when he didn’t show up for rehearsals. Showrunner Danny Arnold said Vigoda was demanding a salary hike that was far more than what the company could afford. Vigoda said he was only asking for a raise after his role expanded from the original concept. Vigoda told Variety he skipped work on the advice of his agent. “We’re asking for what we feel I’m entitled to,” he said, sounding just like Det. Fish.
  • The lawsuit was quickly tabled but tempers flared again the following year when Vigoda accused Arnold of shifting the filming schedule on “Fish” and “Barney Miller” to force him to drop out of the NBC miniseries “79 Park Avenue.” Based on the review of the six-hour Universal TV production in the fall of 1977 (“grade-B melodrama” and “pulpy trash”), Arnold may have done Vigoda a favor.

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