Abe Vigoda, the long-faced character actor best known for his turn as Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather and grumpy Detective Phil Fish on Barney Miller, died on Tuesday, The Associated Press reports. He was 94.
According to Vigoda’s daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, the actor died in his sleep of old age at her home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. “This man was never sick,” Fuchs said.
“It was great working with Abe in The Godfather and wonderful to have him among us,” said Vigoda’s Godfather co-star Robert Duvall. “We had some great memories together and he will really be missed.”
Vigoda was born in Brooklyn in 1921 and studied acting at the Theater School of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. In the early Fifties, he scored straight-man roles on TV comedies opposite the likes of Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn, but spent much of the first three decades of his career as a stage actor.
In 1972, Vigoda scored his big break when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Sal Tessio in The Godfather. Tessio, a capo and old friend of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) famously plotted to take over the Corleone family business after Vito’s death, but Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) catches wind of his plan and snuffs him out before he has the chance.
The role garnered Vigoda increased recognition and a slew of new opportunities, and in 1974, he landed his first steady job as Detective Fish on Barney Miller. Vigoda was a regular for two seasons, garnering three Emmy nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Fish, a short-lived spin-off, premiered in 1977 while he was still a series regular on Barney Miller.
Vigoda frequently recounted the story of how he earned the role of Detective Fish: An avid jogger, his agent reached him after a five-mile run and told him he had to go audition for producers Danny Arnold and Ted Flicker immediately. When he arrived, Arnold noted his frazzled appearance and Vigoda explained that he had been running. “You know, you look like you might have hemorrhoids,” Arnold replied.
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“What are you, a doctor or a producer?” Vigoda quipped. He won the job on the spot.
Over the next few decades, Vigoda dutifully served as a character actor in a variety of TV shows and movies, though perhaps his biggest claim to fame was a false death report that ran in People in 1982. In response, per The New York Times, Vigoda placed a full-page ad in Variety in which he sat upright in a coffin holding the issue in his hand.