Famed character actor Abe Vigoda recalled as a class act
NEW YORK – Nobody who knew “The Godfather” and “Barney Miller” actor Abe Vigoda made mourners smile through their tears Sunday faster than comedian and friend Gilbert Gottfried.
“This is the 20th time we buried Abe Vigoda,” Gottfried announced to a memorial service audience of more than 100.
It was a reference to a running joke about whether Vigoda, the character actor best known for his portrayal of Mafia soldier Sal Tessio in “The Godfather,” was dead or alive – the result of a false report of his death decades ago.
The true end came Jan. 27 when Vigoda died in his sleep at age 94 at his daughter’s Woodland Park, New Jersey, home, where he went to escape the hazards of a blizzard.
“His big wish was not to be alone and not to die alone,” said the daughter, Carol Vigoda-Fuchs. “So I’m grateful he got what he wanted.”
Vigoda’s step into fame came when director Francis Ford Coppola plucked him from obscurity as a supporting actor in New York theater for a role in the Oscar-winning “The Godfather.”
His fame was cemented with his comic turn as over-the-hill detective Phil Fish in “Barney Miller,” which ran from 1975 to 1982.
The program for the memorial service at Riverside Memorial Chapel featured a photograph of the actor in a suit and tie with a line from Coppola’s movie: “Can you get me off the hook … for old times’ sake?”
It was one of Vigoda’s more memorable lines from the 1972 classic as his character, the doomed Tessio, pleaded for his life after he had turned against the Corleone family. His request was denied.
“Abe Vigoda, it’s like his name became a punchline, but in a nice way, a loving way,” Gottfried said. “He was just one of those people you just laughed looking at him.”
Family members remembered Vigoda as a true New Yorker who grew up during the Great Depression in Brooklyn and worked his way up from selling potatoes from a push cart on the streets of New York City to a household name for his appearances on the big screen.
“He was just a regular guy,” Vigoda-Fuchs said. “He loved his fans, he taught us great values. He was very squeaky clean. … I’m very thankful he was able to share his many gifts with everybody and made everybody laugh and be happy.”
The printed program included written tributes from fellow actors, including Robert Duvall, who said it was impossible to watch “The Godfather” and not remember Vigoda’s performance.
Fellow “Godfather” actor Al Pacino sent flowers and a card to Vigoda’s family, recalling his friend as a “gentle kind soul” whose personality shined through his work.
Those who spoke at the memorial, where a large picture of Vigoda rested beside white flowers and before the crowd, included former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
“This city, this country, this world are all better places because Abe Vigoda was here,” Dinkins said.
As the service ended, the theme from “The Godfather” serenaded the departing crowd.