The Fish is More than a Mob Capo

By George Khoury

Abe Vigoda, one of three brothers was born in New York City on February 24, 1921 to Russian immigrants. His future was preordained at an early age. His career began at the age of six in the first grade, when the teacher walked into the classroom casting for a play entitled, “By Candlelight” by Sigfried Geyer. There was only one role left to be cast for a 50-year old baron named Count Von Rischenheim, who found his wife in the closet with a strange man. The teacher looked at Abe and said, “I think you will do, you look old.” So very young Abe Vigoda’s course was charted. He was destined to play the elderly and has not stopped acting since.

Today Vigoda, 91 continues to enjoy a rewarding career. During his early years, the New York theatre was alive with activity and young Abe was drawn to it. At the age
of 16, Abe auditioned for a role in a classical play, after seeing an ad for a Casting Call at the Butler Davenport Theater. He told the Director, Mr. Butler Davenport, “I have been acting since the “foist grade”. He stopped me and said, “We are doing classic Shakespeare, you will have to learn to speak properly.” Abe wanted to study acting and be a performer, so he agreed.

After WWII, Abe used the G. I. Bill to study acting at the Theater School of Dramatic Arts in Carnegie Hall for two years. Upon completion, he enrolled, for another two years, in the American Theater Wing in NYC. At these professional schools for the dramatic arts, he learned enunciation, how to walk on stage, and how to use every skill he possessed.

“In 1961 I played John of Gaunt in “Richard the II” for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. In 1962, the first production to be performed at the new Delacorte Theatre was “The Tempest” where I played alongside James Earl Jones and Charles Durning.”

His Broadway credentials are enviable. He played in “The Cherry Orchard” (1962-63), “The Cat and the Canary” (1965), “Marat/Sade” (1967), “The Man in the Glass Booth” (1968), “Inquest” (1970). He played Abraham Lincoln in “Tough to Get Help” in 1972 and in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1987) in the Boris Karloff role. “That was a great cast. We had Jean Stapleton, Tony Roberts, William Hickey, and Polly Holiday. We gave over 200 performances.” He has toured nationally with Hugh O’Brien in “Guys and Dolls”.

Slowly his career caught fire. He went on the road with the classic, “To Inherit the Wind,” On television we enjoyed him in “Toma”, “The Rockford Files,” “Dark Shadows”, “As the World Turns,” and “Santa Barbara.” He was a regular on all the “Roast” shows in the 1970s and 1980s. He has appeared on the Comedy Central, N.Y. Friars Club roasts of Rob Reiner, and Hugh Hefner as well as just about every series. He estimates that he has appeared as a gangster or cop in over 100 television shows and films.

He is most famous for two roles: “The Godfather” March, 2012 marks the 40th Anniversary – where Abe portrayed Sal Tessio, the capo in the Corleone crime family. He worked with Brando, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall. “The Godfather” earned 4 Academy Awards and 5 Golden Globes. It is ranked by the American Film Institute as the third greatest film behind “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.”

Abe recalls how he landed the part. “I was interviewed twice by Francis Ford Coppola. He told me he saw me in a performance on the stage. I was a stage actor and he wanted stage actors who were unknown to the movie audiences. Coppola went out to Hollywood to search for actors and returned to New York. He interviewed hundreds on both coasts. On his return, he interviewed me again. He saw something in me, he found his Tessio.”

When asked about the rumors that real mobsters were around the set, Abe said, “There were always guys around the shoot. Some thought I was a gangster in real life. I accepted it as a compliment. I was lucky to work with some of the best actors of our time. We were all trained on the stage. I shared a dressing room with Brando. He was a prankster. He once put extra weights on a stretcher when people carried him out, just for laughs. Most of us, at the time, were unknown to film audiences but as the film progressed you could see us grow as actors. We each found a piece of the character within us and that is the key to acting and making yourself believable.” When asked how the wonderful wedding scene was staged, Abe said that over 500 non-actor neighborhood Italians from the Bronx were brought in and made it look authentic.

“The director made us feel like mob guys. They brought us to Little Italy just so we could get the local flavor. They drove us around like we were mob guys.”

One of the most touching scenes was during the wedding sequence with the towering Vigoda dancing with a little girl. “I had the idea for the little girl to dance with me by placing her feet on mine as I moved around. Francis gave all of us great leeway to add to the richness of the character.”

Abe’s second most famous role was the sad faced cop, “Fish” who debuted on ABC-TV’s “Barney Miller”. His slow pronounced walk, his hunch, slow speaking manner became a national treasure. The character Fish became so popular that the network produced a spin off with his own series aptly entitled “Fish”.

He quickly became a beloved and regular guest on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”. Conan used him in random and often pointless scenes because Vigoda’s facial expressions alone were hilarious.

Vigoda made several appearances on the “Today Show”. Matt Lauer proclaimed Abe, “our favorite guest of all times”. Meredith Vieria joked, “Matt will age to look like Abe Vigoda.” In June 2011, he appeared on Meredith’s last broadcast to the wild applause of the audience.

At the age of 88, he appeared with fellow actor Betty White, also 88 years, in the most downloaded and beloved commercial that ever ran in a Super Bowl; the “Snickers” commercial. The commercial won first place for Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010.

When asked who he respects as actors, he quickly responded, “Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant.” Age does not seem to slow Abe down. “The secret is to do what you love and love what you do. I believe what doctors tell me that it is possible to live to 127 years old. I avoid sugar and walk every day,” the former handball player and jogger said.

A five time Emmy nominee, Abe Vigoda is almost unable to walk the streets of New York City without hearing the cheers of people. He still has that slow pronounced hunch when he walks. New Yorkers approach him on the street. With love and respect they call out to Fish and or Tessio. He smiles and signs autographs and continues walking now at a brisk pace that defies a man of 91 years and makes one wonder if his trademark walk was part of his public character.

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