Abe Vigoda, the sad-faced actor who emerged from a workmanlike stage career to find belated fame in the 1970s as the earnest mobster Tessio in “The Godfather” and the dyspeptic Detective Phil Fish on the hit sitcom “Barney Miller,” died Tuesday morning in Woodland Park, N.J.
He was 94, having outlived by 34 years an erroneous report of his death that made him a cult figure.
His daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, told The Associated Press that Mr. Vigoda had died in his sleep at her home.
Vigoda, tall and graying with a long face, sturdy jaw and deep-set eyes, was a 50-year-old stage actor who had earned his stripes on and off Broadway performing Shakespeare, Strindberg and Shaw when he got his big Hollywood break, winning the role of Salvatore Tessio in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1972 adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel “The Godfather.”
For a clip of Abe Vigoda as "Tessio" in "The Godfather," click here
“I’m really not a Mafia person,” Vigoda, who was of Russian-Jewish descent, told Vanity Fair magazine in 2009. “I’m an actor who spent his life in the theater. But Francis said, ‘I want to look at the Mafia not as thugs and gangsters but like royalty in Rome.’ And he saw something in me that fit Tessio as one would look at the classics in Rome.”
To prepare himself for the role — a high-ranking mobster who runs a crew of his own — Vigoda frequented the Lower East Side and other New York neighborhoods that are backdrops in the story. He “practically lived in Little Italy during the shoot,” he told Vanity Fair.
Mr. Vigoda’s Tessio is an old friend and ally of the Godfather, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). But in a story that traces a classical tragic arc, he becomes a figure of disloyalty who pays a steep price for his betrayal.
He reprised the role in a flashback scene in “The Godfather: Part II” in 1974.
A year after that, Vigoda was cast as the worn-out Detective Fish on the station-house sitcom “Barney Miller,” opposite Hal Linden in the title role. Mr. Vigoda stayed with the series for two seasons, 1975-76 and 1976-77, and the opening episodes of a third, earning three Emmy nominations for best supporting actor in a comedy series. (The show continued without him until 1982.)
He was so successful that he achieved a rare television feat: appearing in his own spinoff, “Fish,” while still in the cast of the original show. “Fish” centered on the detective’s home life as the foster parent of five children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. It ran from February 1977 to May 1978.
Vigoda’s days as a television star seemed to be behind him in 1982 when People magazine reported that he had died. Mr. Vigoda responded by placing an ad in Variety with a photo showing him sitting up in a coffin and holding a copy of the offending issue of the magazine.
His “death” became a running joke.
“I have nothing to say about Abe,” Billy Crystal said at a roast of Rob Reiner at the Friars Club, where Vigoda was a regular. “I was always taught to speak well of the dead.”
David Letterman and Conan O’Brien invited him onto their late-night shows to prove he was still alive. A website, www.abevigoda.com, continued to give updates on his status.