“Can you get me off the hook? For old times’ sake?”
But it was we who were on Abe Vigoda’s hook. He might have been a character named Fish, but he had us hook, line, and sinker. Godfather fans knew him as the dangerous Sal Tessio. To the Barney Miller faithful he was Detective Fish, who eventually moved to his own spinoff. Certainly, he had many more memorable characters over his nearly 70-year career, but these will likely remain his legacy. He was a reliable character actor on shows like The Rockford Files, Mannix, Hawaii Five-0, Cannon, Dark Shadows, Kojak, MacGyver, Law & Order, and even the voice of a mobster in a Batman animated feature. Last week we lost Abe. He was 94 years old. Fortunately, we’ll never lose Tessio and Fish.
This isn’t the first time Abe’s death has been reported. He had several mistaken stories of his demise published over the years dating back to the 1980’s. Perhaps it was the unhealthy nature of Detective Fish. Writers naturally assumed he couldn’t possibly be with us for long. The character suffered from every ailment possible from hemorrhoids to a heart condition. Perhaps his illness stemmed from his pessimistic view on life. But Abe Vigoda was nothing like that. His health was good until the day he did finally pass. He was also one of the most optimistic and sunny dispositions to the people who met him. But it’s often the curse of a great actor that we buy his characters so solidly that we fail to observe the differences between character and actor. So, Vigoda suffered reading his own obituary on several occasions. I wish he could have the opportunity to read this one. Unfortunately, it’s official.
Vigoda began his career on the stage as a teenager. He was a Brooklyn native, sharing the trait with many of his iconic characters. He ended up becoming a staple on television, often playing a mobster heavy like his Tessio character. In later years he’d fill that same role on television and direct-to-video low-budget films. Vigoda was not the kind of guy who received a ton of recognition for his work. His only award nominations came for Barney Miller, where he was three times nominated for Fish as a supporting actor in a comedy. He never won any of those awards, but I suspect it was enough for him that he won our hearts.
He would never truly shake the Tessio role either. Vigoda supplied the voice of the character for several Godfather video games. His voice was distinctive and certainly part of his charm. But it was his long face and severe frown that became his trademark. The same look that was so menacing in The Godfather could become hilarious in comedy. He had incredible comedic timing. He was patient as a comedy actor. He never rushed to the punchline, and his delivery appears almost slow-motion today. But it fit him and his characters like a glove. There’s a popular shirt that shows the many emotions of Mr. Spock, using the same photo for each. You could play the same game with Vigoda. The difference between menace and merriment was in the nuance of the delivery.
While he hadn’t worked much in the last decade, he did continue to act until the end. And though I hadn’t seen a lot from him lately, I’m still going to miss him. “I always liked him.”
Join us in looking back at some of Abe Vigoda’s work reviewed here at Upcomingdiscs: