Recently--very recently, a friend and colleague took a vacation in Florida, and, at a social event, found himself next to Abe Vigoda.
"Yeah," Vigoda said, deadpan, in response to my friend's expression, "still alive."
As his NYT obituary reports, Vigoda's death had been reported 34 years ago, quite, quite incorrectly:
Mr. Vigoda’s days as a television star seemed to be behind him in 1982 when People magazine reported that he had died. Mr. Vigoda responded by placing an ad in Variety with a photo showing him sitting up in a coffin and holding a copy of the offending issue of the magazine.I like to think that he enjoyed the schtick; he was a deft comedian, as the above clip from Barney Miller demonstrates. Watch him closely--he has no lines, but Vigoda as Fish manages to convey a world-weary, deadpan wryness as Steve Landesberg's Detective Dietrich tries to take all the fun out of a donut.
His “death” became a running joke. “I have nothing to say about Abe,” Billy Crystal said at a roast of Rob Reiner at the Friars Club, where Mr. Vigoda was a regular. “I was always taught to speak well of the dead.”
David Letterman and Conan O’Brien invited him onto their late-night shows to prove he was still alive. A website, abevigoda.com, continued to give updates on his status.
His name was kept alive in other ways as well. A punk-rock group appropriated his name as its own. And the Beastie Boys rapped about him in their 1986 album, “Licensed to Ill”: ““I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda/You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda.
He's just as good, albeit in darker hues, as the doomed Tessio:
Underplaying, beautifully underplaying, was the secret to Vigoda's success in these roles. He's the still, sure point around which the scene pivots, whether for comedic effect or dramatic--and made those roles iconic. They live because they were preserved--we can see them. But Vigoda's theatrical work can't be seen, and I suspect that's a great loss:
In 1960, he starred in an Off Broadway production of the Strindberg drama “The Dance of Death,” and he appeared frequently at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the early ’60s, as John of Gaunt in “Richard II” and King Alonzo in “The Tempest,” among other roles.Interesting choices, all of them, and I can't help but wonder what the younger Abe Vigoda did with those roles. But that's part of the glory and tragedy of theater--its ephemeral nature. You can see lightning captured in a bottle, but it's no longer glimpsed then it is gone. Still, when I was a kid, I watched Barney Miller regularly, and loved the ensemble--but nobody made me laugh harder than one of Vigoda's perfectly-timed bleak stares at some foolishness within the station house.
In 1963, he had the lead in an Off Broadway production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Five years later, he was on Broadway in Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade.”
Rest in Peace, Abe Vigoda. And--thanks for showing me just how good a silence, a pause, a stare could be, effectively deployed.