Viva Vigoda!

abe-vigoda-portraitThe joke’s been going on for several decades, but the truth is that Abe Vigoda is still alive.

Like Mark Twain, reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.

Best known as deadpan detective “Fish” on the hit ‘70s sitcom Barney Miller, and the lead in its short-lived eponymous spinoff, Vigoda has taken the brunt of many “Isn’t he dead” questions for years. Now 92 years young, Vigoda has remained relatively healthy, and even has a fresh credit in a 2013 film called Mobster Movie.

It took a while for the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Russia to get his big break. He had a recurring role in the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, and was eventually cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather as Salvatore Tessio, capregime to “Don” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando).   

 Barney Miller began its run on ABC in 1974, bringing Vigoda’s long, Sad Sack face and morose demeanor into living rooms every week, as he essayed grouchy senior detective Philip Fish of Greenwich Village’s 12th District. He put in three full seasons before being spun off into the 1977 mid-season replacement Fish. The series, which focused on Phil’s home life with spouse Bernice (Florence Stanley) and five foster kids, lasted a season and a half. Fish would thereafter occasionally drop in at the 12th until Barney Miller ended its run in 1982.

After Barney Miller and Fish, Vigoda—who was married to Betty Schy from 1968 until her death in 1992—appeared in such TV shows as Murder, She Wrote, MacGyver, and Mad About You, and in such movies as Look Who’s Talking, Joe Vs. the Volcano and North. He also supplied the voice of gangster Salvatore Valestra in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, an animated feature.  A younger generation may also know him for his cameos on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, mostly during the show’s early years, where he squeezed avocadoes and sprayed mace into Jay Leno’s face.

The trope of Vigoda passing on actually came from a 1982 article in People Magazine that incorrectly stated that he had died. The good-natured Vigoda, an avid jogger and handball player at the time,  publically acknowledged he was happy to get the attention, despite the circumstances.

abe-vigoda-that-hurtMore recently, Vigoda, a long-time member of the Friar’s Club who appeared in their roast of Betty White, appeared in a football-related Snickers commercial with White that aired during Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.   

His one line of dialogue?

“That hurt.”