Abe Vigoda was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lena (née Moses) and Samuel Vigoda, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor who had two other sons: Hy and Bill. The latter was a comic book artist who drew for the Archie comics franchise and others in the 1940s. Abe Vigoda began acting while in his teens, working with the American Theatre Wing. His career as a professional actor began in 1947. Vigoda gained acting notability in the 1960s with his work in Broadway productions, including Marat/Sade (1967) playing “Mad Animal”, The Man in the Glass Booth (1968) playing “Landau”, Inquest (1970), and Tough to Get Help (1972). His best-known film role is that of elder mobster Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather (1972). He also appeared briefly in The Godfather Part II in a flashback sequence at the end of the film. According to director Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on the DVD’s widescreen edition, Vigoda landed the role of Tessio in an “open call,” in which actors who did not have agents could come in for an audition. He gained further fame playing Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on Barney Miller, a character known for his world-weary demeanor and persistent hemorrhoids. Abe Vigoda starred in a brief spinoff of Barney Miller that centered on his character, eponymously called Fish, until it was canceled in June 1978.
In 1982 People magazine mistakenly referred to Abe Vigoda as dead. At the time, Vigoda, age 60, was performing in a stage play in Calgary. He took the mistake with good humor, posing for a photograph published in Variety in which he was sitting up in a coffin, holding the erroneous issue of People. Jeff Jarvis, a People employee at the time, said that the magazine’s editors were known for “messing up” stories, and one of them repeatedly inserted the phrase “the late” in reference to Vigoda, even after a researcher correctly removed it. The edited (erroneous) version was what went to print. The same mistake was made in 1987 when a reporter for television station WWOR, Channel 9 in Secaucus, New Jersey, mistakenly referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda”. She realized and corrected her mistake the next day. Abe Vigoda had been the subject of many running gags pertaining to the mistaken reports of his death. In 1997, Vigoda appeared in the film Good Burger as the character Otis, a restaurant’s French fry man. Several jokes were made about his advanced age, including his character Otis saying “I should’ve died years ago.” That same year he was shopping at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when the salesman remarked, “You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda because he’s dead.” A Late Night with David Letterman skit showed Letterman trying to summon Vigoda’s ghost, but Vigoda walked in and declared, “I’m not dead yet, you pinhead!” At a New York Friars Club roast of Rob Reiner which Vigoda attended, comedian Billy Crystal wise-cracked, “I have nothing to say about Abe. I was always taught to speak well of the dead.”
In May 2001, a website was mounted with only one purpose: to report whether Vigoda was dead or alive. In 2005, a “tongue-in-cheek” Firefox extension was released with the sole purpose of telling the browser user Vigoda’s status. Continuing with the gag, Vigoda appeared frequently to make fun of his status on the television show Late Night with Conan O’Brien, including a guest appearance on the show’s final episode. At the 1998 New York Friars Club roast of Drew Carey, with Vigoda in the audience, comedian Jeff Ross joked, “my one regret is that Abe Vigoda isn’t alive to see this”. He followed that with “Drew, you go to Vegas; what’s the over–under on Abe Vigoda?” On January 23, 2009, Vigoda appeared live on The Today Show. He said he was doing well, joked about previous reports of his death and announced he had just completed a voice-over for an H&R Block commercial to air during the Super Bowl. Abe Vigoda and Betty White, both 88 years old at the time, appeared in “Game”, a Snickers commercial that debuted during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010. The plot made fun of the advanced age of the actors. The Super Bowl Ad Meter poll respondents rated the ad the highest of any shown during the game. Longtime radio and podcast host Don Geronimo frequently called Vigoda on-air whenever a big name celebrity died, which Vigoda took with obliging good humor. On the day following Vigoda’s death, Geronimo dedicated his daily subscription podcast to the memory of his friend and played many sound board/phone clips of their conversations over the years. Abe Vigoda died on January 26, 2016 in his sleep at his daughter’s home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. He is survived by his daughter, three grandchildren and a great-grandson, who are all still among the living.
- February, 24, 1921
- Brooklyn, New York
- January, 26, 2016
- Woodland Park, New Jersey
Cause of Death
- natural causes