Remembering Abe Vigoda — Five of His Most Famous Roles

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Abe Vigoda, the acting legend best known for roles as varied as the comedic Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on Barney Miller and its spinoff Fish and the turncoat Sal Tessio in The Godfather, has died. He was 94. According to his daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, the actor died at her home earlier today from “old age.”

Vigoda, born Feb. 24, 1921, began as a stage actor before getting his big break in 1972’s The Godfather, playing the part of Don Vito Corleone’s trusted associate Sal Tessio – a character who make’s an attempt on Vito’s son Michael’s life in a power play to take control of the family.

Three years after The Godfather, Vigoda landed his best-known comedic role – Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on Barney Miller and its spinoff Fish. In total the run as Fish lasted from 1975-1978, after which he embarked on various acting projects in film, television and theatre.

In later years Vigoda become known for his appearances on late night television, becoming a frequent guest or performer on Conan O’Brien’s various talk shows as well as making a few appearances on Late Night/The Late Show with David Letterman. He also gained fame for repeated false reports of his passing, which date back to 1982. The mistaken death notices occurred enough times that many of today’s obituary notices had to run a notice in the headline that, unfortunately, this is not a hoax.

Click through our slideshow below for five of Abe Vigoda’s most memorable roles.

Sal Tessio, The Godfather

After years of theatre work, Vigoda’s big Hollywood break came in 1972 in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Godfather. Vigoda played Sal Tessio, pictured far left in the image above, behind Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. Tessio eventually betrays the Corleone family after Vito’s death, helping to arrange a plot to have the Don’s successor, and son, Michael killed. The plot fails and Tessio eventually pays for it with his life. The character also makes an appearance in a flashback at the end of the film’s sequel, The Godfather Part II. He also later voiced the character in Godfather video games.

Detective Sgt. Phil Fish, Barney Miller

One of Vigoda’s most famous roles was the perennially grumpy and illness-stricken Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on the sitcom Barney Miller. Though he only appeared on the series from 1975-1977 before embarking on one season of a spinoff series called Fish in 1977/78, the role proved perhaps Vigoda’s most enduring character.

Grandpa Vincent, Look Who’s Talking

In this hit about a baby with an inner dialogue – voiced by Bruce Willis – Vigoda plays John Travolta’s difficult grandfather, who Travolta’s character puts in a nursing home. It’s not a big part, but Vigoda as a grandpa is a heart-warming thought.

Chief Tobi, Joe Versus the Volcano

A far cry from mobsters, police detectives and aging grandpas, Vigoda played Chief Tobi, leader of the Waponi tribe on the Pacific Island of Waponi Woo in this quirky romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And even the colourful robes, face paint and an elaborate feathered headpiece he’s decked out in can’t obscure Vigoda’s familiar face and gaze.

Himself, 2010 Snickers Super Bowl commercial

You know the commercials – a cranky celebrity is hanging out with a group of non-famous friends until one of the friends mentions the celebs aren’t acting like themselves when they’re hungry. Then the celeb takes a bite of the Snickers chocolate bar and suddenly they’re themselves again – a regular person like all the other friends.

In this incarnation of the commercial, the friends are playing a game of tackle football when one of the friends appears as a cranky Betty White. By the end of the commercial White’s had her Snickers and is back to normal, but when play resumes we see the football tossed to Abe Vigoda – clearly another friend in need of a Snickers bar – who is promptly tackled to the ground before uttering, “That hurt.”

See the commercial in the video here:

Snickers 2010 Super Bowl commercial featuring… by zoomermedia