Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Late Great Abe Vigoda

Abe Vigoda, best known for playing Detective Phil Fish on the classic TV sitcom Barney Miller and who also appeared in the movie The Godfather as gangster Salvatore Tessio, died on January 26 2016 at the age of 94.

Abe Vigoda was born on February 24 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents (Samuel Vigoda, who was a tailor, and the former Lena Moses) were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Abe had two brothers, Hy and Bill. Bill Vigoda would become famous in his own right as a comic book artist who worked for Archie Comics for literally decades.

Abe Vigoda began acting while in his teens, working with the American Theatre Wing. He turned professional in 1947 and appeared frequently on stage for the next two decades. In 1949 he made his television debut in an episode of the classic anthology series Suspense. In 1949 he also appeared in an episode of Studio One. In 1951 he appeared in an episode of All-Star Revue.

The Sixties saw Abe Vigoda very busy on stage. He appeared in the off Broadway productions Shadow of Heroes, The Cherry Orchard, A Darker Flower, and The Cat and the Canary. He made his Broadway debut in 1967 in The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. He went on to appear in the productions The Man in the Glass Booth and Inquest. On television he appeared in three episodes of the Gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows. He made his film debut in Trois chambres à Manhattan in 1965.

The Seventies saw Abe Vigoda become a household name. It was in 1972 that he appeared as Tessio in The Godfather. He reprised the part in The Godfather: Part II (1974). During the decade he also appeared in the films The Don Is Dead (1973), Newman's Law (1974),  and The Cheap Detective (1978). It was in 1974 that he first appeared in his best known role, that of Phil Fish on Barney Miller Fish proved to be one of the most popular characters on the show, if not the most popular. The character was eventually spun off into his own short lived series, Fish. On television in the Seventies Abe Vigoda also appeared on the shows Mannix; Love, American Style; The Rookies; Toma; Hawaii Five-O; Kojak; Cannon; The Bionic Woman; Vega$; The Rockford Files; The Love Boat; and Fantasy Island. He appeared on Broadway in Tough to Get Help in 1972.

In the Eighties Mr. Vigoda had recurring roles on the soap operas As the World Turns and Santa Bararba. He appeared on the shows Harper Valley P.T.A., Mike Hammer, Tales from the Darkside, Superboy, B. L. Stryker, Monsters, and MacGyver. He appeared in the films Cannonball Run II (1984), The Stuff (1985), Vasectomy: A Delicate Matter (1986), Plain Clothes (1987), Look Who's Talking (1989), Prancer (1989), Keaton's Cop (1990), and Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). He appeared on Broadway as Jonathan Brewster in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.

In the Nineties Mr. Vigoda appeared in the films Fist of Honour (1993), Me and the Kid (1993), Home of Angels (1994), The Misery Brothers (1995), Jury Duty (1995), Underworld (1996), Love Is All There Is (1996), Me and the Gods (1997), Good Burger (1997), A Brooklyn State of Mind (1998), Just the Ticket (1999), and Chump Change (2000). He provided the voice of  Salvatore Valestra in the animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993).  He guest starred on the shows Murder, She Wrote; Diagnosis Murder; Law & Order; Weird Science; Wings; Touched by an Angel; Promised Land; Mad About You; and Norm.

From the Naughts into the Teens he guest starred on the show Deadline and was a guest voice on High School USA!. He appeared in the films Crime Spree (2003), Frankie the Squirrel (2007), and Sweet Destiny (2014).

Curiously for a very prolific actor who was almost never absent from TV or movie screens from 1972 to 2001, Abe Vigoda was frequently plagued by reports of his death. It all began in 1982 when People magazine made the mistake of referring to him as "the late Abe Vigoda". While People corrected the error, the mistake persisted both among various media outlets and in the minds of ordinary people. In 1987 a reporter for WWOR in Secaucus, New Jersey made the same mistake. She corrected it the very next day. Abe Vigoda took the death rumours all in stride, even having a bit of fun with them once in a while. In a famous skit from The Late Show with David Letterman, David Letterman tried to summon the ghost of Abe Vigoda, only to have the very much living Abe Vigoda show up and tell him, "I’m not dead yet, you pinhead." On Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Conan O'Brien consistently used Abe Vigoda in skits just to discredit the rumours of his death.

Abe Vigoda will probably always be bet remembered as Phil Fish from Barney Miller and Fish. The elderly, grumpy, laconic detective was perhaps the most popular character on Barney Miller and quite possibly one of the most popular characters of all time. Much of this is perhaps because Mr. Vigoda played the role perfectly. Even though he was only 53 when he first played Fish, Abe Vigoda was entirely convincing as a character who was apparently much older.

Of course, while Abe Vigoda may always be most famous as Fish, he played a number of different roles in his career. He was an extremely versatile actor. Including the cunning yet earnest Tessio from The Godfather he played a number of mobsters in the Seventies. Despite some of his rather gritty roles in Seventies movies and films, Abe Vigoda was also very adept at comedy. He played an elderly fast food worker in Good Burger and grandfatherly figures in yet other comedies (such as Look Who's Talking and North). On stage he played murderous brother Thomas Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. Abe Vigoda was a wonderful actor who played every part he was ever given very well.

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