Fame and fortune have come late in life to Abe Vigoda.
Vigoda, who has been playing the role of Sgt. Fish on "Barney Miller" for the past 2 1/2 years, now has at the age of 55: his own show, a new Cadillac, a custom tailor and an enormous following among television viewers of every age.
He likes the fame, but at times is slightly puzzled by its intensity. Sitting in his dressing room in an ABC studio near Sunset and Vine, Vigoda recalled how one young woman was terribly concerned about his health. "I was sitting in a restaurant," he said, "when this young lady came up and aksed for my autograph."
"Then she said, 'I hope your hemorrhoids aren't bothering you too much.' She was very serious. I said, 'You must be joking.' She said, 'No, I'm not. I just don't want you to worry about it because I have them, too.'" Despite Vigoda's assurance that only the TV character, Sgt. Fish, was troubled by hemorrhoids, the young woman walked away unconvinced.
Vigoda has had that effect on people with his remarkable characterization of Fish, who resembles Boris Karloff in speech and W.C. Fields in his disdain for wives, children and small dogs.
He has waited 30 years for his new-found fame and fortune. For most of that time, he was a classical actor appearing on Broadway or on tour in 85 theatrical productions. His favorite role was John of Gaunt in Richard II.But he was virtually unknown until he played the role of Tessio in the movie, "The Godfather." After that, everyone seemed to recognize him.
But his fame and fortune did not really reach the levels normally associated with movie or television stars until he became something of a cult figure paying the dyspeptic Sgt. Fish.
Vigoda, who speaks in a carefully articulated and slightly formal manner, thinks his popularity stems from Fish representing a little bit of us all.
"For example," said Vigoda, "a woman on the street will say to me: 'You remind me so much of my husband. He always complains. He always wants to go away for a week, but when he goes away he misses me terribly and doesn't know what to do with himself. The relationship that you have on the show with your wife, Bernice, is the way we see through.'"
Vigoda is very cautious about his newfound popularity and wealth. He has been without both for too much of his life. He is still living in an apartment, although he and his wife, Beatrice, are looking for a house in Beverly Hills, Belair or Brentwood.
"The reason I'm still living in an apartment," he said, "is that I still have that struggling syndrome. It is very difficult for a man of my age who has been through so much to take his money and start spending it."
"The first season I came out here to play in Barney Miller, I bought an Oldsmobile. I gave cash for it, $6,500 in cash. That's the biggest thing that ever happened to me. But now I've bought myself a Cadillac. It's a burgundy and white hard-top. I bought it because I wanted to enjoy myself. But it was quite a thing to do, to say, There is $13,500 in cash.' But I've biggest thing that ever happened to me. But now I've bought myself a Cadillac. It's burgundy and white hardtop. I bought it because I wanted to enjoy myself. But it was quite a thing to do, to say, 'Here is $13,500 in ash.' But I've always wanted these things.
"What's happening to me now," he continued, "is that I am still the same Abe Vigoda. I'm the same persons, I have the same friends; but the difference now is that I can buy the things I could never afford before. Things that I really need. I have never had a house before, so now I would like a house with a little garden and a pool. Hollywood has been very kind to me."
What, he was asked, would he do if all the fame and fortune disappeared suddenly?"Well," he said, "I'm now in my middle 50s I have achieved a certain amount of success, for which it absolutely right.It happened. I am enjoying it. And if it suddenly stops, I know that I finally have some of the things I always wanted and that, hopefully, I have given some happiness and joy to the people who have watched me."
"In the meantime," Vigoda said with a shrewd smile, "I'm going to be very careful of how I spend my dollars."