Abe Vigoda, Det. Fish on TV's 'Barney Miller,' Dies at 94

Abe Vigoda
Courtesy of Photofest

The three-time Emmy nominee also starred in his own spinoff series and was memorable as a mob boss in 'The Godfather.'

Abe Vigoda, who earned Emmy Award nominations in three straight years for his portrayal of the world-weary Det. Phil Fish on the 1970s ABC sitcom Barney Miller, has died. He was 94. 

The actor's daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, confirmed the passing to the Associated Press, saying that Vigoda died on Tuesday morning at home in New Jersey.

Vigoda also is remembered for his role as hulking mob boss Sal Tessio in Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films.

In 1982, People magazine noted that “the late” Abe Vigoda did not attend the Barney Miller wrap party, and rumors/reports of his death circulated many times in the ensuing years. A website was created with a sole purpose: to indicate whether the actor was dead or alive.

The good-natured Vigoda capitalized on the bizarre situation to keep his career going in his later years. He made frequent appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and the Today show, starred with Betty White in a wildly popular Snickers commercial that debuted during the 2010 Super Bowl telecast and was revealed to be inside a furry costume onstage at a 2013 Phish concert in Atlantic City, N.J. (He and his spinoff show, Fish, are referenced in their song, “Wombat.”)

The New York native was 53 when his agent told him to rush to an audition for Barney Miller in Studio City. He had just jogged five miles and hadn’t showered.

“Danny Arnold and Ted Flicker, the producers, look at me, I look at them, they look at me again. ‘You look tired,’ ” he recalled one of them saying in the 2009 book, What Have You Done? The Inside Stories of Auditioning — From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.

“Of course I’m tired. I jogged five miles this morning. I’m exhausted.”

“Yeah, yeah, tell me, you look like you have hemorrhoids.”

“What are you, a doctor or a producer?”

Vigoda got the part of Fish, a man much older than he, and Barney Miller premiered in January 1975. The sitcom starred Hal Linden as the title character, the captain of the fictional 12th Precinct in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Featuring a rich mix of ethnic characters, Barney Miller aired for eight seasons through May 1982 and captured the Emmy for outstanding comedy a few months after it was done.

As the cranky Fish, the oldest of the detectives and a member of the force for nearly 40 years, Vigoda often complained about his sore feet and yes, his hemorrhoids. He constantly argued with his bothersome wife, Bernice, who was on the other end of the telephone, and his somber, hangdog delivery delighted TV viewers.

“The character of Fish is so complete, so human,” one of his co-stars, Max Gail, said in a 1976 interview with the Associated Press. “Things like going to the bathroom or being tired — simple, human things — Abe finds a kind of poetry in them and people connect with them. He’s a wonderful actor.”

Said Vigoda: “[Fish] is not unhappy, but he is pessimistic. He knows things don’t always turn out the way they should.”

Vigoda was a regular for two seasons of Barney Miller and received Emmy supporting actor comedy noms in 1976, 1977 and 1978. His character retired in the fourth season, and Fish, starring Vigoda and Florence Stanley as Bernice, launched in February 1977. It lasted two seasons and 35 episodes.

Earlier, Coppola had hired Vigoda during an open call audition (for actors without an agent). The Godfather (1972) was Vigoda’s first movie, and his character is sent to “sleep with the fishes.”

“Tom, can you get me off the hook, for old time’s sake?” Vigoda asks Robert Duvall’s character. “Can’t do it, Sally,” Duvall replies.

“It was great working with Abe in The Godfather and wonderful to have him among us,” Duvall said Tuesday in a statement. “We had some great memories together, and he will really be missed.” 

Vigoda also played Grandpa in Look Who’s Talking (1989), and that film’s writer-director, Amy Heckerling, told THR that he was “just terrific. I was shocked when I read that he was just 68 when he [appeared in the comedy] — I thought he was so much older! He was a brilliant actor and he was so sweet and so much fun and so patient working with the babies and me.”

Abraham Charles Vigoda was born in New York City on Feb. 24, 1921. His father was a tailor in a flat on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The youngster stayed in shape by excelling in handball, then got his start on TV on an episode of Suspense in 1949.

Later, he appeared on Broadway in The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, in Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth and, as Abe Lincoln, in the comedy Tough to Get Help. He also had a role on the spooky daytime serial Dark Shadows.

Vigoda’s TV résumé also includes a role as Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano in the 1998 NBC telefilm Witness to the Mob and stints on Mannix, The Rockford Files, Toma, Kojak, Cannon, Vegas, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Family Guy, The Norm Show, As the World Turns and Santa Barbara.

He also appeared in such films as The Don Is Dead (1973), Prancer (1989), Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Sugar Hill (1993), Jury Duty (1995), Good Burger (1997), Chump Change (2000) and Crime Spree (2003).

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4