Abe Vigoda, the longtime character actor who gained fame for playing Det. Phil Fish in the TV series Barney Miller and its spin-off series, Fish, perished on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2015, at age 94. Vigoda was living with his daughter at her home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. His daughter confirmed that he died on Tuesday morning in his sleep of natural causes.
Vigoda was a theater actor for many years before he got his big break in films as Salvatore Tessio in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning movie, The Godfather (1972). During a 2009 Vanity Fair interview, he recounted that Coppola saw something in him and wanted an atypical look for the characters in the film. This role was a springboard to many others, but it was not until he was cast in the 1970s classic comedy series Barney Miller that he garnered widespread recognition as an actor.
The Barney Miller series focused on the lives and exploits of the detectives who worked in New York City’s fictional 12th Precinct, which was located in Greenwich Village. Vigoda portrayed the aging Det. Phil Fish, who was always complaining of some physical ailment or on the verge of retirement. His character served as a mentor for the other detectives, delivered sage advice, and provided comic relief. Being a native New Yorker himself, the actor understood the milieu and its central theme to the show. While the series ran from 1975 to 1982 on ABC, Abe Vigoda, who perished at 94 and gained fame on the shows, was only a series regular until 1978, when he eventually left Barney Miller for his own spin-off show, Fish.
The premise of Fish was centered on the New York City detective’s home life and family. The original idea was to show the New Yorker’s home life with his wife, adult daughter, and the daughter’s boyfriend, along with occasional visits to the 12th Precinct. However, the concept and timeframe of the spin-off changed. Instead, the retired detective opened a group home, along with his wife, and the spin-off series debuted two years later than originally planned. Initially, the actor juggled both shows. However, due to his desire to headline his own show, the thespian insisted that they allow him to exit Barney Miller and stay with Fish. To accommodate Vigoda, the show creators, who created and spearheaded both shows, allowed the detective to retire from Barney Miller and the precinct in the beginning of Season 4. Ultimately, the gamble backfired as Fish only lasted two seasons because ABC and the creators would not agree to Vigoda’s pay demands for a third season. Nonetheless, the actor returned for guest appearances on Barney Miller and his time on the show made him a well-known figure.
Another claim to fame for Vigoda centered around the erroneous report of his death by People magazine in 1982. The thespian’s response to the faux pas was in the vein of classic comedy. Vigoda placed an ad in Variety with a photo depicting him sitting up in a coffin and holding a copy of the issue of the magazine covering his so-called death. The exaggerated tale of his death in the ’80s became a running joke and kept his career alive. As a result, a website was created (abevigoda.com) to keep tabs on the actor’s mortality, and late night comedians, such as David Letterman, invited him to their shows to prove he was still among the living. He appeared on Letterman’s show in 1988.
The character actor, who gained fame on Barney Miller and Fish, has perished of natural causes at his daughter’s home in Woodland Park, NJ. He was 94. While he worked in obscenity for many years as a stage actor, he gained recognition as a TV and film actor, thanks to the success of 1970s productions, such as Barney Miller, Fish, and The Godfather. In addition to his film and TV work as well as the erroneous reports of his death, Abe Vigoda also garnered fame for his sullen features and gravel-toned voice. In his later years, the actor made a living via voice-over work, commercials, and guest spot appearances centered around those elements.
Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh
NPR–Character Actor Abe Vigoda Dies at 94
USA TODAY–Stars, Fans, Colleagues Remember Abe Vigoda
Washington Times–Abe Vigoda, ‘Fish’ From ‘Barney Miller’ TV Show and ‘Godfather’ Actor, Dead at 94
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