Abe Vigoda, the veteran character actor who died today at the age of 94, had the sort of face that almost guaranteed him a place in the ranks of great character actors. Hollow-eyed, slouching, and perpetually downcast-looking, he was never going to win leading man parts. But the same qualities that made some roles impossible for him made him perfect for others. No one else looked or sounded like Abe Vigoda. If you wanted that Abe Vigoda quality, there was only one place to find it.
The son of a New York tailor, Vigoda worked in theaters, with the occasional TV role, for years before scoring his breakthrough role: Don Corleone’s lieutenant Tessio in the 1972 film The Godfather. A few years later, he earned an even bigger audience as Det. Phil Fish on the classic cop sitcom Barney Miller, where his comic timing and beaten-down persona served him well. (Vigoda also played the part in the short-lived spin-off Fish.)
Vigoda worked less steadily in the 1980s… and here’s where it becomes odd to write a Vigoda obit. He was the subject of false reports of his death twice, first in 1982 then again in 1987. Vigoda responded to the first mistake by taking a picture of himself in a coffin. The second one served as the occasion for the first of many self-deprecating appearances on late-night television via this joke on Late Night with David Letterman in 1988, inspired by his frustration with people thinking him dead.
Later, others ran with the gag, especially Conan O’Brien, for whom Abe Vigoda essentially became a recurring character via his frequent appearances. Those spots helped introduce him to a new generation of fans and inspired the creation of abevigoda.com, a site whose sole purpose is to inform visitors as to whether or not Vigoda is alive or dead. Sadly, the site had to be updated today.