Godfather actor who played Tessio, Abe Vigoda, dies aged 94

Actor Abe Vigoda. Picture: AP

Actor Abe Vigoda. Picture: AP

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Abe Vigoda, whose leathery sunken-eyed face made him ideal for playing ageing detective Phil Fish in the 1970s TV series Barney Miller and doomed Mafia soldier Tessio in The Godfather, has died aged 94.

His daughter said he died yesterday in his sleep at home in Woodland Park, New Jersey.

Vigoda worked in relative obscurity in New York theatre and in television until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the 1972 Oscar-winning The Godfather. He played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) who plots to take over the family after his death by killing his son Michael (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, recognizsble to the general public and led to numerous roles, often as hoodlums.

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.

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.”

Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren and a great-grandson.

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