Abe Vigoda, who died on Tuesday at the ripe old age of 94, started life old. His first-grade teacher formed a drama group and needed someone to portray Baron von Richenhoffen, a 50-year-old man who finds his wife in the closet with a strange man. She looked around and settled on a dour child. “You look old, Abe. I think you’ll do for the part.”
So at the tender age of six Abe was thrust into show business. Even though he was often typecast as a heavy, he actually started out in comedy. He was a regular on NBC’s “All Star Revue,” a live variety show in the 1950s that featured such stars as Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Danny Thomas, George Jessel and Tallulah Bankhead.
Success came to him late in life when he made his mark as the Mafia capo Sal Tessio in the 1972 blockbuster film “The Godfather.” But he didn’t become affluent until he moved to this side of the law. He won fame as the decrepit Detective Phil Fish in the ABC series “Barney Miller” (1975-82).
The actor with the mournful countenance was born to an Orthodox family on the Lower East Side. His immigrant parents came from small towns in Russia. When Abe was six they moved to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
He told me in an interview in 2008 that he reads Hebrew fluently and put on tefilin for two years after his bar mitzvah. He tried to keep the major holidays as best he could in the business.
“I went out in the world and developed a broader vision,” he said. “I involved myself in different charities. I gave of myself whether it’s for Jew, Catholic, Protestant or black children, as well as such causes as Israel Bonds. Whatever charity I help out, I never forget that deep inside me stirs my Orthodox upbringing.”
Vigoda died in his sleep on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at the home of his daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, in Woodland Park, N.J.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots, from which this story is adapted.