Like many of us, I was pretty bummed to hear that Abe Vigoda had died yesterday. Amplifying my sorrow somewhat was the feeling that I probably hadn’t even experienced most of his greatest work first hand. Sure, I remember Vigoda from Godfather, and, uh… Joe vs. The Volcano, and countless other “that guy” roles. But I’ll leave it to those with a fuller understanding of the man’s legacy to assign him a place in the pantheon.
The truth is, I never saw Barney Miller (and I wish Abe Vigoda didn’t have to die to remind me to watch that). For me, and I suspect a lot of my generation, Abe Vigoda existed largely as the ultimate random celebrity joke, progenitor of the death hoax and a sort of walking sight gag (thanks to David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, et al). I hope the Barney Miller fans don’t think that degrades the man, because for one thing, I don’t think the actual man thought it degraded him. If Abe Vigoda took offense, he sure didn’t show it. Abe Vigoda was always up for an Abe Vigoda joke, to the point that he was dressing up like a wombat for a Phish show well into his 90s.
My point is, I don’t think Abe Vigoda being a punchline tarnishes any of the other work he did, partly because he seemed to take so much pleasure in it himself, and even more so because he was the best at it. Everyone aspires to be “in on the joke” in the Twitter age; Abe Vigoda was doing it 25 years ago. He managed to be a kind of new, post-modern celebrity despite being old enough to remember the Great Depression. We should all hope to ever be that cool.
As just one example of this phenomenon, I choose Good Burger, from 1997. It remains one of the worst movies ever made, despite a soundtrack that included my favorite ska band, Less Than Jake. Spun off from the equally bad Nickelodeon show Kenan & Kel, Good Burger isn’t just not funny, it’s fist-ballingly, teeth-grittingly anti-funny. And this isn’t just me, the snobby film critic, talking here, it’s also the pre-pubescent teenager with nacho cheese on his shirt I was when I first saw it. I hated it even then, as a dangerously entertainment-deprived acne victim living in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, a place almost universally derided as a crummy dirthole filled with cow farts (you’re not allowed to say that, but I am). And yet, I remember exactly where I was when I first saw Good Burger. Why? Abe Vigoda, that’s why. That’s it. He is the only reason, the alpha and the omega.
I wish I had more video examples of Vigoda’s greatness to share with you here, but alas, it seems there aren’t many Good Burger superfans out there. But it makes for an especially good comparison today, after this past weekend’s release and critical failure of Dirty Grandpa, an entire film built around the novelty of a 72-year-old Robert De Niro jacking off and swearing. Vigoda’s Godfather co-star will probably go down in history as the better actor, but consider: De Niro, in a movie written specifically for him, couldn’t muster the kind of laughs Abe Vigoda did with just a throwaway cameo in a throwaway Nickelodeon movie reading throwaway lines like “Do you think you can get me to a hospital? I think I broke my ass.”
No one else could pull that off. Abe Vigoda was one of a kind.