Abe Vigoda, ‘Godfather’ and ‘Barney Miller’ Character Actor, Dead at 94

It’s not a hoax this time.


Abe Vigoda, the beloved film and television actor who was twice prematurely pronounced dead by inaccurate news reports, has passed away at the age of 94, his daughter confirmed to the Associated Press.

Vigoda is perhaps best known for his role as Corleone capo Sal Tessio in the first two Godfather films. He also had a successful decades-long television career, earning three Emmy nominations for his role as Detective Fish on Barney Miller in the 1970s. His character got a short-lived spinoff, Fish, which was canceled after one season. 

Born to a Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1921, Vigoda got his start in theater. He appeared in several Broadway productions before landing the part of Salvatore Tessio at an open call audition. The Godfather role, which includes one of the trilogy’s more affecting assassination scenes (or, rather, pre-assassination), put him on the Hollywood radar.

Vigoda told the story of his last-minute audition for Barney Miller in = Louise Zorich’s 2009 book What Have You Done: The Inside Stories of Auditioning.

While living in Los Angeles, I’d jog three to five miles a day. One morning jogging, my agent calls about a new series called Barney Miller, saying, “Go there at once.” Well, I was tired and exhausted … I must have run five miles that morning. I said. “I have to go home and take a shower.”

His agent convinced him to go straight to the audition, where the producers apparently told him he looked tired and said “you look like you have hemorrhoids.”

“What are you, a doctor or a producer?” Vigoda retorted.

Detective Fish was regularly plagued with hemorrhoids (apparently the first sitcom character to have the condition) and spent a lot of time in the bathroom. The Barney Frank audition story was apparently only told once, though it’s been oft repeated, with no clarification on how Vigoda’s agent could have reached him while he was out jogging in the mid-1970s.

Vigoda had an appealingly goofy physicality and was always ready with a joke, often at his own expense. After People magazine in 1982 and a local New Jersey station in 1987 published reports referring to “the late Abe Vigoda,” the actor happily ran with the gag, poking fun at his mortality in late-night talk show appearances and as a fry cook of advanced age in the film Good Burger. 

In response to years of erroneous death reports, a website was created for the exclusive purpose of telling visitors whether Vigoda was alive or dead. It was, sadly, updated earlier today.