Abe Vigoda, sunken-eyed character actor, dead at 94

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Actor Abe Vigoda Dead at 94


NEW YORK (AP) — Character Abe Vigoda, whose leathery, sunken-eyed face made him ideal for playing the over-the-hill detective Phil Fish in the 1970s TV series "Barney Miller" and the doomed Mafia soldier in "The Godfather," died Tuesday at age 94.

Vigoda's daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, told The Associated Press that Vigoda died Tuesday morning in his sleep at Fuchs' home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. The cause of death was old age. "This man was never sick," Fuchs said.

SEE ALSO: David Bowie planned a 'long list' of music to release: Report

Vigoda worked in relative obscurity as a supporting actor in the New York theater and in television until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the 1972 Oscar-winning "The Godfather." Vigoda played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone's (Marlon Brando) who hopes to take over the family after Vito's death by killing his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). But Michael anticipates that Sal's suggestion for a "peace summit" among crime families is a setup and the escorts Sal thought were taking him to the meeting turn out to be his executioners.

"Tell Mike it was only business," Sal mutters to consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) as he's led away.

The great success of the film and "The Godfather Part II" made his face and voice, if not his name, recognizable to the general public and led to numerous roles, often as hoodlums.

See photos of Abe Vigoda from over the years:

23 PHOTOS
Abe Vigoda through the years
See Gallery
Abe Vigoda, sunken-eyed character actor, dead at 94
Abe Vigoda and Robert Duvall watch Marlon Brando and Al Lettieri shake hands in a scene from the film 'The Godfather', 1972. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)
American actor Abe Vigoda as Sal Tessio in 'The Godfather', directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
BARNEY MILLER - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: December 20, 1974. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ABE VIGODA;HAL LINDEN
BARNEY MILLER - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: December 20, 1974. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ABE VIGODA
BARNEY MILLER - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: December 20, 1974. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JACK SOO;GREGORY SIERRA;MAX GAIL;ABE VIGODA;RON GLASS;HAL LINDEN
BARNEY MILLER - 'Graft' - Airdate: February 13, 1975. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JACK SOO;ABE VIGODA
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 23: BARNEY MILLER - 'Evacuation' - Season Three - 9/23/76, Fish (Abe Vigoda) met his future foster daughter., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 20: Abe Vigoda on the 1978 People's Choice Awards show. Image dated February 20, 1978. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 20: Actor Abe Vigoda sighted on April 20, 1981 at La Cage Aux Folles in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - MARCH 7: Actor Abe Vigoda and wife Beatrice Schy attend the premiere of 'Joe vs. The Volcano' on March 7, 1990 at Mann Regent Theater in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 4: Actor Abe Vigoda attends National Actors Theater Dinner Gala on October 4, 1994 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
NEW YORK CITY - SEPTEMBER 29: Actor Abe Vigoda attends Friar's Club Roast Honoring Hugh Hefner on September 29, 2001 at the New York Hilton Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Abe Vigoda during The Motion Picture Club Hosts 63rd Annual Awards and Installation Luncheon at Marriot Marquis in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
Abe Vigoda during Mickey Rooney and Jan Rooney at Opening Night for Let's Put on a Show at Irish Rep Theater/ Porter's Steak House in New York, New York, United States. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
Abe Vigoda during 65th Annual Motion Picture Club Awards and Luncheon at Marriot Marquis in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 04: Actor Abe Vigoda arrives at the 58th annual Writers Guild of America awards ceremony February 4, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Actor Abe Vigoda attends the Friars Club roast of Matt Lauer at the New York Hilton on October 24, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 03: Abe Vigoda attends the 54th Annual New York Emmy Awards at Marriott Marquis Times Square on April 3, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 10: Actors Abe Vigoda and Cloris Leachman attend the 9th Annual TV Land Awards at the Javits Center on April 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 08: NBC 'Today Show' host Meredith Vieira shares a moment with actor Abe Vigoda during a taping of the 'Today Show' taking place on Meredith Vieira's last day on NBC's 'Today Show' at Rockefeller Plaza on June 8, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 01: Abe Vigoda attends the 55th Annual New York Emmy Awards gala at the Marriott Marquis Times Square on April 1, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
PARSIPPANY, NJ - OCTOBER 24: Abe Vigoda attends day 2 of Chiller Theatre Expo on October 24, 2015 in Parsippany NJ, United States. (Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

But it was his comic turn in "Barney Miller," which starred Hal Linden and ran from 1975 to 1982, that brought Vigoda's greatest recognition.

He liked to tell the story of how he won the role of Detective Fish. An exercise enthusiast, Vigoda had just returned from a five-mile jog when his agent called and told him to report immediately to the office of Danny Arnold, who was producing a pilot for a police station comedy.

Arnold remarked that Vigoda looked tired, and the actor explained about his jog. "You know, you look like you might have hemorrhoids," Arnold said. "What are you — a doctor or a producer?" Vigoda asked. He was cast on the spot.

"The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," a reference book, commented that Vigoda was the hit of "Barney Miller." ''Not only did he look incredible, he sounded and acted like every breath might be his last," it said. "Fish was always on the verge of retirement, and his worst day was when the station house toilet broke down."

Vigoda remained a regular on "Barney Miller" until 1977 when he took the character to his own series, "Fish." The storyline dealt with the detective's domestic life and his relations with five street kids that he and his wife took into their home.

SEE ALSO: These iconic stars are pushing 100

The show lasted a season and a half. Vigoda continued making occasional guest appearances on "Barney Miller," quitting over billing and salary differences.

But he remained a popular character actor in films, including "Cannonball Run II," ''Look Who's Talking," ''Joe Versus the Volcano" and "North."

His resemblance to Boris Karloff led to his casting in the 1986 New York revival of "Arsenic and Old Lace," playing the role Karloff originated on the stage in the 1940s. (The murderous character in the black comedy is famously said by other characters to resemble Boris Karloff, a great joke back when the real Karloff was playing him.)

Stars we lost in 2015:

51 PHOTOS
Celebrity deaths 2015
See Gallery
Abe Vigoda, sunken-eyed character actor, dead at 94

January 1 -- Donna Douglas, actress best known for her role in "The Beverly Hillbillies."

(AP Photo/Bill Haber, File)

January 7 -- Rod Taylor, actor best known for this leading role in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

January 9 -- Samuel Goldwyn Jr., was a famous producer and the father of "Scandal" star Tony Goldwyn.

(Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage)

January 10 -- Taylor Negron, was best known for his character roles in films "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Stuart Little."

(Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

January 11 -- Anita Eckberg, actress best known for her role in "La Dolce Vita." 

 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

February 16 -- Lesley Gore, singer best known for the 60's hit "It's My Party."

(Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

February 16 -- Lorena Rojas, telenovela actress.

(Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

February 27 -- Leonard Nimoy, actor known for his role as Mr. Spock in "Star Trek."

(Photo by Inter-News/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

March 8 - Sam Simon, a director, producer and writer, best known for co-creating "The Simpsons." (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

March 10 -- Richard Glatzer, writer and director best known for his Award-winning work, "Still Alice."

(Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images)

April 1 -- Cynthia Lennon, first wife of John and mother to musician Julian Lennon.

(Photo by Cummings Archives/Redferns)

April 6 -- James Best, actor best known for his role in "The Dukes of Hazzard".  (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

April 7 -- Geoffrey Lewis, actor and father of actress Juliette Lewis. Lewis regularly played opposite Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood in films.

 (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

April 14 -- Percy Sledge, singer best known for the hit "When a Man Loves a Woman."

(Photo by Suzie Gibbons/Redferns)

April 23 -- Sawyer Sweeten (L), actor known for his role in "Everybody Loves Raymond" and died at age 19.

(Photo by Mike FANOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

April 30 -- Ben E. King, singer best known for the massive hit "Stand by Me."

 (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

May 1 -- Grace Lee Whitney, actress best known for her role on "Star Trek."

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

May 6 -- Errol Brown, best known as the frontman for the soul and funk band Hot Chocolate. He died at age 71 

(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

May 14 -- B.B. King, legendary blues musician, who won dozens of awards for his music. He died at the age of 89.

 (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

June 7 -- Christopher Lee, actor best known for his role in "The Lord of the Rings" franchise. Lee died at the age of 893.

(Photo: Getty Images) 

June 22 -- James Horner, composer best known for creating the music for "Titanic," for which he won an Academy Award. Horner also scored "Aliens," "Braveheart," "Avatar," and more popular films. 

 (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

July 3 -- Amanda Peterson, actress best known for her role in the popular 80's film "Can't Buy Me Love," co-starring Patrick Dempsey. Peterson died at the age of 43. 

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

July 3 -- Diana Douglas, actress and wife of actor Kirk Douglas, mother of Michael Douglas. She is known for her comedic film, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." 

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

July 6 -- Jerry Weintraub, Emmy award-winning producer and talent agent best known for his work on films like the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise.

(Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)

July 9 -- Christian Audigier, clothing designer known for his Ed Hardy and Von Dutch lines. Audigier died at the age of 57.

 (Photo by Foc Kan/WireImage)

July 10 -- Omar Sharif, actor known for his roles in "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia." 

(Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

July 18 -- Alex Rocco, actor best known for his role in "The Godfather." He won an Emmy Award for his role on the television comedy series, "The Famous Teddy Z." (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

July 26 -- Bobbi Kristina Brown, singer, actress and television personality. She was the daughter of Whitney Houston who died in a similarly tragic circumstance in 2012. Bobbi Kristina died at the age of 22.

(Photo by Tibrina Hobson/WireImage)

July 30 -- Lynn Anderson, Grammy award-winning country music artist known for songs like "Top of the World" and "Rose Garden." 

 (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

July 31 --"Rowdy" Roddy Piper, wrestler and actor. He died at the age of 61.

 (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage for BWR Public Relations)

August 7 -- Uggie the Dog, actor best known for his role in "The Artist."

 (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)

August 9 -- Frank Gifford, football player and television sports commentator. He was married to talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford and a father of 5 and died at the age of 84.

(Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

August 17 -- Yvonne Craig, dancer and actress, best known for her role as Batgirl on the "Batman" television series.

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

August 30 -- Wes Craven, filmmaker well-known for his horror film franchise "The Nightmare on Elm Street." He also created the "Scream" franchise. He died at the age of 76. 

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

September 1 -- Dean Jones, actor known for his role of Jim Douglas in "The Love Bug" films. 

(Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

September 3 -- Judy Carne, actress best known for her comedic roles on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh‑In" and "Love on a Rooftop."

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

September 4 -- Jean Darling, child actress known for her role in "My Gang."

(Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images)

September 6 -- Martin Milner, actor best known for his roles in the 1960's television shows "Route 66" and "Adam-12."

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

September 19 -- Gary Richrath, guitarist for the band REO Speedwagon.

(Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

September 19 -- Jackie Collins, novelist and sister of actress Joan Collins. 

(AP Photo/File)

September 28 -- Catherine Coulson, actress known for her role as the Log Lady on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

October 24 -- Maureen O'Hara, prominent 1940's actress, she received an honorary Academy Award in 2014. She starred in "The Parent Trap" and "The  Miracle on 34th Street." 

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

November 4 -- Melissa Mathison, screenwriter best known for writing "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and her marriage Harrison Ford.  (Photo by Amy Graves/WireImage for Mann Productions)

November 16 -- David Canary, actor best known for his role on "All My Children."

(AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

November 23 -- Cynthia Robinson, trumpeter and vocalist of the band Sly and the Family Stone.

 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

December 3 -- Scott Weiland, lead singer of the alternative rock band Stone Temple Pilots. He died at the age of 48.

(Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)

December 4 -- Robert Loggia, actor known for Jagged Edge, which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He also starred in "Big" and "Scarface."

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

December 6 -- Holly Woodlawn, one of the first known transgender actresses. She was a muse of Andy Warhol and inspiration for Lou Reed's 'Wild Side'

(Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

December 13 -- Rose Siggins, actress best known for her role in "American Horror Story: Freak Show."

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

December 28 -- Lemmy Kilmister, frontman of the rock band Motörhead.

(Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)

of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Born in New York City in 1921, Vigoda attended the Theater School of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. In the early 1950s, he appeared as straight man for the Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn TV comedies.

For 30 years, he worked in the theater, acting in dozens of plays in such diverse characters as John of Gaunt in "Richard II" (his favorite role) and Abraham Lincoln in a short-lived Broadway comedy "Tough to Get Help."

Vigoda attributed his high percentage in winning roles to his performance in auditions. Instead of delivering the tired soliloquies that most actors performed, he wrote his own, about a circus barker. At a surprise 80th birthday party in New Jersey in 2001, he gave a spirited recital of the monologue to the delight of the 100 guests.

Reflecting on his delayed success, Vigoda once remarked: "When I was a young man, I was told success had to come in my youth. I found this to be a myth. My experiences have taught me that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, success can come at any age."

"Barney Miller" became his first steady acting job.

"I'm the same Abe Vigoda," he told an interviewer. "I have the same friends, but the difference now is that I can buy the things I never could afford before. I have never had a house before, so now I would like a house with a nice garden and a pool. Hollywood has been very kind to me."

He was married twice, most recently to Beatrice Schy, who died in 1992. He had his daughter with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke, who has also died. Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren Jamie, Paul and Steven, and a great-grandson.

Reruns of "Barney Miller" and repeated screenings of the two "Godfather" epics kept Vigoda in the public eye, and unlike some celebrities, he enjoyed being recognized. In 1997 he was shopping in Bloomingdale's in Manhattan when a salesman remarked: "You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can't be Abe Vigoda because he's dead." Vigoda often appeared on lists of living celebrities believed to have passed away.

___

Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press' late Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas.

More from AOL.com:
Nick Carter sued for allegedly choking bar worker during altercation
Allison Williams got engaged during an episode of 'The Bachelor'
Emily Blunt and John Krasinski are expecting baby No. 2!

Read Full Story

People are Reading