NEW YORK— Character actor Abe Vigoda, whose leathery, sunken-eyed face made him ideal for playing the over-the-hill detective Phil Fish in the 1970s TV series “Barney Miller” and the doomed Mafia soldier in “The Godfather,” died Tuesday at age 94.
Vigoda’s daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, told The Associated Press that Vigoda died Tuesday morning in his sleep at Fuchs’ home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. The cause of death was old age. “This man was never sick,” Fuchs said.
Vigoda worked in relative obscurity as a supporting actor in the New York theater and in television until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the 1972 Oscar-winning “The Godfather.” Vigoda played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) who hopes to take over the family after Vito’s death by killing his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).
The great success of the film and “The Godfather Part II” made his face and voice, if not his name, recognizable to the general public and led to numerous roles, often as hoodlums.
But it was his comic turn in “Barney Miller,” which starred Hal Linden and ran from 1975 to 1982, that brought Vigoda’s greatest recognition.
Vigoda remained a regular on “Barney Miller” until 1977 when he took the character to his own series, “Fish.” The storyline dealt with the detective’s domestic life and his relations with five street kids that he and his wife took into their home.
The show lasted a season and a half. Vigoda continued making occasional guest appearances on “Barney Miller,” quitting over billing and salary differences.
But he remained a popular character actor in films, including “Cannonball Run II,” ”Look Who’s Talking,” ”Joe Versus the Volcano” and “North.”
Born in New York City in 1921, Vigoda attended the Theater School of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. In the early 1950s, he appeared as straight man for the Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn TV comedies.
For 30 years, he worked in the theater, acting in dozens of plays in such diverse characters as John of Gaunt in “Richard II” (his favorite role) and Abraham Lincoln in a short-lived Broadway comedy “Tough to Get Help.”
Reflecting on his delayed success, Vigoda once remarked: “When I was a young man, I was told success had to come in my youth. I found this to be a myth. My experiences have taught me that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, success can come at any age.”
He was married twice, most recently to Beatrice Schy, who died in 1992. He had his daughter with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke, who has also died. Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren Jamie, Paul and Steven, and a great-grandson.
Reruns of “Barney Miller” and repeated screenings of the two “Godfather” epics kept Vigoda in the public eye, and unlike some celebrities, he enjoyed being recognized. In 1997 he was shopping in Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when a salesman remarked: “You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda because he’s dead.” Vigoda often appeared on lists of living celebrities believed to have passed away.