Abe Vigoda (1921-2016)
Fish sleeps with the fishes.
Let me tell you a story I‘ve told probably a dozen times. It was Dec. 1990, I believe, and I was in a car with my sister and our friend Josh Karp, driving from Minneapolis to Chicago for New Year’s Eve. Josh was from that area. Suburbs, I believe. It was the first house I'd ever been in that had heated floors.
Anyway, on the way down, we played many a game of “20 Questions.” Josh and I are adept at pop cultural crap so we were doing well, and my sister was struggling to keep up. But then she figured out someone that we couldn't figure out: an actor ... white, male, no longer alive ... who had been on a TV show in the 1970s. He'd had his own TV show but he was better known for a different TV show. His show had even been a spinoff of the first one, but his wasn't that successful. We‘re racking our brains. We’re asking other questions. Movies? Other occupations? Sports? Politics? Karen is giddy with triumph. Finally, as we pull into the driveway of the house with the heated floors, we give up and Karen announces the answer with pride: Abe Vigoda.
Josh and I simultaneously: “Abe Vigoda's not dead!”
We hit her with it every once in a while, even though a lot of others have made the same mistake; even though People magazine was the first to do so.
Today, on Facebook, she posted the Times' obit (probably in the can since Dec. 1990), and wrote: “Erik, Josh: See, I was right.”
I first knew Abe Vigoda as Fish, of course, on “Barney Miller,” an underrated sitcom of the 1970s that I absolutely loved. For years, I remember, it was voted by cops as the most realistic portrayal of police work on TV (until “Hill Street Blues” came along). Back then, Vigoda looked impossibly old, but when the show began in 1974, he was actually my age now: 53. I'm the age of Fish.
He was also two years removed from the role that turned around his (up to that point, mostly stage) career: Sal Tessio, the Corleone insider that betrays them and pays for it. I still see him with that tight smile, trying one last time to wriggle free. “Tell Mike, it was only business. I always liked him.”
Does anyone know how he landed that role? Who cast him and why? Shortly thereafter he played Don Talusso in “The Don is Dead,” and John Dellanzia in an episode of “Newman's Law.” But despite how large “The Godfather” looms, I‘ll always think of him as Det. Fish of the 12th precinct. That episode where Wojo brought in the brownies laced with hashish? “The old guybang zoom!” And then Fish’s later sad realization: “The first time in years I felt good ... and it has to be illegal.”
I finally just read the Times' obit and I'm getting a little teary-eyed now, more than I should be. An amazing life that had no business connecting with so many others, but did. If I had all the time in the world, I would check out his entire ouevre. But we don't have all the time in the world. Not even Abe Vigoda.