De­layed suc­cess

Abe Vigoda, sad-eyed char­ac­ter ac­tor, dead at 94

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Char­ac­ter ac­tor Abe Vigoda, whose leath­ery, sad-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.

His death brought to an end years of ques­tions on whether he was still alive — sparked by a false re­port of his death more than three decades ago. Though Vigoda took it in stride, the ques­tion of whether he was dead or alive be­came some­thing of a run­ning joke: There was even a web­site de­voted to an­swer­ing the much-Googled ques­tion, “Is Abe Vigoda dead?” (On Tues­day, it had been up­dated with “Yes,” with the date of his death.)

Vigoda worked in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity as a sup­port­ing ac­tor in the New York theatre 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). But Michael an­tic­i­pates that Sal’s sug­ges­tion for a “peace sum­mit” among crime fam­i­lies is a setup and the es­corts Sal thought were tak­ing him to the meet­ing turn out to be his ex­e­cu­tion­ers.

“Tell Mike it was only busi­ness,” Sal mut­ters to con­sigliere Tom Ha­gen, played by Robert Du­vall, as he’s led away.

In a state­ment, Du­vall said Tues­day it was “great work­ing with Abe in ‘The God­fa­ther’ and won­der­ful to have him among us. We had some great mem­o­ries to­gether and he will re­ally be missed.”

The great suc­cess of the film and “The God­fa­ther Part II” made Vigoda’s 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.

He liked to tell the story of how he won the role of De­tec­tive Fish. An ex­er­cise en­thu­si­ast, Vigoda had just re­turned from a five-mile jog when his agent called and told him to re­port im­me­di­ately to the of­fice of Danny Arnold, who was pro­duc­ing a pi­lot for a po­lice sta­tion com­edy.

Arnold re­marked that Vigoda looked tired, and the ac­tor ex­plained about his jog. “You know, you look like you might have hem­or­rhoids,” Arnold said. “What are you — a doc­tor or a pro­ducer?” Vigoda asked. He was cast on the spot.

“The Com­plete Direc­tory to Prime Time Net­work and Ca­ble TV Shows,” a ref­er­ence book, com­mented that Vigoda was the hit of “Bar­ney Miller.” “Not only did he look in­cred­i­ble, he sounded and acted like ev­ery breath might be his last,” it said. “Fish was al­ways on the verge of re­tire­ment, and his worst day was when the sta­tion house toi­let broke down.”

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.”

His re­sem­blance to Boris Karloff led to his cast­ing in the 1986 New York re­vival of “Ar­senic and Old Lace,” play­ing the role Karloff orig­i­nated on the stage in the 1940s. (The mur­der­ous char­ac­ter in the black com­edy is fa­mously said by other char­ac­ters to re­sem­ble Boris Karloff, a great joke back when the real Karloff was play­ing him.)

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 theatre, act­ing in dozens of plays in such di­verse char­ac­ters as John of Gaunt in “Richard II” (his favourite role) and Abra­ham Lin­coln in a short-lived Broad­way com­edy “Tough to Get Help.”

Vigoda at­trib­uted his high per­cent­age in win­ning roles to his per­for­mance in au­di­tions. In­stead of de­liv­er­ing the tired so­lil­o­quies that most ac­tors per­formed, he wrote his own, about a cir­cus barker. At a sur­prise 80th birth­day party in New Jersey in 2001, he gave a spir­ited recital of the mono­logue to the de­light of the 100 guests.

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.”

“Bar­ney Miller” be­came his first steady act­ing job.

“I’m the same Abe Vigoda,” he told an in­ter­viewer. “I have the same friends, but the dif­fer­ence now is that I can buy the things I never could af­ford be­fore. I have never had a house be­fore, so now I would like a house with a nice gar­den and a pool. Hol­ly­wood has been very kind to me.”

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.”

In an Oct. 24, 2008 file photo, ac­tor Abe Vigoda at­tends the Fri­ars Club Roast of “To­day Show” host Matt Lauer in New York.

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