Abe Vigoda, an actor who used his sunken eyes, gravelly voice and projection of gloom to memorable effect as characters on both sides of the law, from a doomed mafia capo in “The Godfather” to a worn-down police detective on the sitcom “Barney Miller,” died Jan. 26 at a daughter’s home in Woodland Park, N.J. He was 94.
His daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not cite a cause.
On “Barney Miller,” in his best-known television role, Mr. Vigoda cultivated an appearance just shy of rigor mortis. Perhaps for that reason, an erroneous 1982 reference to him in People magazine as “the late” Mr. Vigoda became a running gag that the actor gradually embraced on late-night talk shows and in comedies such as “Good Burger” (1997), in which he played an ancient fry cook.
Mr. Vigoda’s widespread recognition was a testament to his patience, having toiled in near-obscurity for the first half of his life. He began working in television during its infancy in the late 1940s and had a long stage career, including a few short-lived Broadway roles.
In casting “The Godfather” (1972), filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola went looking for little-known stage actors to play in supporting roles. He tapped Mr. Vigoda to portray Salvatore Tessio, an underworld figure who betrays Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and pays the price.
As he’s led away to his execution, Tessio tells Corleone family consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), “Tell Mike it was only business.”
Mr. Vigoda was Jewish but had a visage that Coppola apparently found authentic for a mafioso — and that also seemed to draw the curiosity of New York mob members who showed up on the set one day. “They kept looking at me, as if to say, ‘What family is he from?’ ” the actor recalled years later on CNN.
The film, based on a Mario Puzo novel, won Academy Awards including best picture, helped redefine the gangster genre and remains one of the seminal movies of its era.
“The Godfather” elevated Mr. Vigoda’s career, but he became a household name in 1975 with “Barney Miller,” the long-running ABC sitcom about a New York precinct house.
Hal Linden, in the title role, was officially the star, but Mr. Vigoda proved the sleeper in the cast, portraying the weary, hemorrhoidal Phil Fish, a detective with nearly 40 years on the force. Fish deals dyspeptically with calls from his wife, Bernice.
A fellow cast member, Max Gail, who played detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz, once told the Associated Press of Mr. Vigoda, “The character of Fish is so complete, so human. Things like going to the bathroom or being tired — Abe finds a kind of poetry in them, and people connect with it.”
Mr. Vigoda, who through handball and jogging was actually in terrific physical condition well into his senior years, said he identified with Fish because of his own struggle as an actor.
He said Fish was “not unhappy, but he’s pessimistic.” Most people don’t achieve “the things they dream about, and most people don’t realize the justice they should have,” Mr. Vigoda remarked. “They see it going somewhere else.”
“Barney Miller” brought Mr. Vigoda a comfortable income for the first time in his life, and he splurged on a Cadillac. He left the cast in 1977, five years before the show ended its run, to star in an ABC spinoff, “Fish,” that focused on the character’s domestic life. It was quickly cancelled.
Abraham Charles Vigoda was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 24, 1921. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and his father worked as a tailor. He said he wanted to be an actor after appearing in a school play at age 6, portraying an old man.
He appeared in plays by William Shakespeare and Harold Pinter and in early TV programs such as “Studio One in Hollywood.”
After his success on “Barney Miller,” Mr. Vigoda had small roles in films including “The Cheap Detective” (1978), “Look Who’s Talking” (1989), “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990) and “Sugar Hill” (1993). He also made guest appearances on shows such as “Law & Order,” “Santa Barbara” and “Mad About You.”
His first marriage, to Sonja Gohlke, ended in divorce. His second wife, Beatrice Schy, died in 1992. Survivors include a daughter from his second marriage; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
He said the first rumor of his demise came about when People magazine covered a wrap party for “Barney Miller” and Mr. Vigoda, who was appearing in a play in Calgary, Alberta, could not attend. Declared “the late Abe Vigoda,” he said his wife began receiving condolence letters. The actor then took out an ad in a trade publication that showed him holding a lily — a flower commonly displayed at funeral services — and a copy of People.
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