Abe Vigoda, Godfather turncoat and TV detective, dies at 94

Actor Abe Vigoda smiles as he attends the Friars Club Roast of Betty White in New York in this file photo from May 16, 2012.
Actor Abe Vigoda smiles as he attends the Friars Club Roast of Betty White in New York in this file photo from May 16, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Abe Vigoda, the film and television actor famous for his long, hangdog face and his history of being declared dead long before his time was up, has died. He was 94.

He died in his sleep on Tuesday morning at the Woodland Park, New Jersey, home of his daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, according to the Associated Press.

His most prominent roles were as one of Don Corleone's soldiers in 1972's The Godfather and as Detective Phil Fish on ABC's Barney Miller. His work on the show earned him Emmy nominations in 1976, 1977 and 1978, as well as a short-lived spinoff, Fish. He embraced the decades-long legend of his premature demise, which stemmed from the 1982 wrap party to commemorate the final episode of Barney Miller.

Vigoda, whose character had already been spun off, missed the event because he was acting in a play in Calgary. People magazine, in its account of the party, referred to "the late Abe Vigoda".

The label stuck. "My wife keeps getting condolence cards from people who believe I died," Vigoda told the Toronto Star in 1988. "Many are producers. I'm sure there are many who may have thought about me for a role but said, 'No, he's dead.'"

Other media outlets repeated the "late Abe Vigoda" error in later years.

He often told the story of his agent getting a call from a producer seeking "an Abe Vigoda type", unaware that the original was still around and available.

At a 2004 Friars Club roast of developer Donald Trump, Vigoda was introduced with the words, "If Abe Vigoda were alive today." In recent years, Vigoda made appearances on the late-night shows of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. H&R Block, in a TV commercial about death and taxes that ran during the Super Bowl in February 2009, cast Vigoda to play the character of death.

Abraham Charles Vigoda was born on Feb 24, 1921, in New York and was the son of a tailor on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

He acted mostly in theatre for the first 20 years of his career.

His break came when film director Francis Ford Coppola cast him in The Godfather as Salvatore Tessio, the gangster who is caught arranging the murder of boss Michael Corleone.

In a famous scene, Vigoda's Tessio explains his betrayal as "only business" and pleads with Robert Duvall's character, Tom Hagen, to "get me off the hook for old times' sake". Instead, Tessio is led off for his own execution.

Vigoda said the movie was his crowning achievement. "Brando, Caan, Pacino, De Niro - you can imagine how I felt," he told the New York Times in 2001. "The Godfather changed my life."

The role was a stretch for Vigoda, a stage actor and a descendant of Russian Jews. He said Coppola persuaded him to try.

"Francis said, 'I want to look at the Mafia not as thugs and gangsters but like royalty in Rome,'" Vigoda recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair for a 2009 article. "And he saw something in me that fit Tessio as one would look at the classics in Rome."

Vigoda immersed himself in the role. He told Vanity Fair he "practically lived in Little Italy during the shoot". He also appeared in flashback scenes in The Godfather: Part II (1974).

On Barney Miller, Vigoda's Detective Fish was grouchy, hemorrhoid-afflicted and nearing retirement. The spinoff series, which ran 14 episodes in 1977-1978, revolved around him and his wife becoming foster parents.

Vigoda's wife, Beatrice, died in 1992. He is survived by his daughter.