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.

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"This is the 20th time we buried Abe Vigoda," Gottfried announced.

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 Tuesday 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 theatre 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 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.

The printed program included written tributes from fellow actors, including Robert Duvall, who said it was impossible to watch "The Godfather" and not remember his performance.

Todd Bridges, who worked with him on a sitcom spinoff of "Barney Miller," recalled him as "a man of dignity" who protected him like a father, including when he scolded a director for yelling at children on the set.

Bridges said Vigoda backed him during the darkest times of his life, telling others: "He's a good kid. He will find his way back."

"And I did," Bridges said.

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.

As the service ended, the theme from "The Godfather" serenaded the departing crowd.


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