Obituary: Abe Vigoda
Shakespearean theatre actor who played 'Sal' Tessio, the Mafia boss in Coppola's The Godfather
Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30
Abe Vigoda, who died on Tuesday aged 94, was a jobbing stage actor with a few Broadway credits to his name when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Salvatore Tessio, the lugubrious Mafia capo in The Godfather; it is 'Sal' Tessio who, as he faces his own death after betraying the heir apparent Michael Corleone, utters the immortal lines: "Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him."
That scene and the others in which he appeared in the film (and in its first sequel) turned Vigoda into one of America's most beloved character actors.
Abraham Vigoda was born on February 24, 1921 in New York City. His parents, Samuel and Lena, were Jewish immigrants from Russia; his father was a tailor.
On leaving school, Vigoda worked as a printer, before enlisting in the US Army in 1943. After military service, he studied acting on the GI Bill at the American Theatre Wing. In the late 1940s he began working in radio and he made his television debut in an instalment of the live drama series Studio One.
Extremely tall and with a hangdog face that conveyed intense world-weariness, he appeared regularly as a character actor off Broadway.
By the early 1960s, he had become a regular player at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, notably as John of Gaunt in Richard II. He made ends meet with episodic appearances in soap operas and with other small television parts. Towards the end of the decade, he was finally getting work on Broadway, appearing in a revival of Marat/Sade and in The Man in the Glass Booth.
In 1970 Coppola picked him out of a "cattle call" - an open audition for 500 actors - and cast him as Tessio in The Godfather (1972). Vigoda was surprised, telling Vanity Fair years later: "I'm really not a Mafia person. I'm an actor who spent his life in the theatre. But Francis said, 'I want to look at the Mafia not as thugs and gangsters but like royalty in Rome', and he saw something in me that fit Tessio as one would look at the classics in Rome."
To prepare for the part, Vigoda began spending time in Little Italy, where he watched the "made men" going about their business. His careful study paid off. The Godfather is recognised as one of Hollywood's greatest achievements, not least for the excellence of the acting.
The film opens with a big family wedding, of the Godfather Don Corleone's daughter. We see Tessio dancing with one of the flower girls - a benign, elderly uncle bent double to dance with the child.
Tessio is, in reality, a "caporegime" in the Corleone crime family, in charge of a crew of foot soldiers and perfectly capable of murder.
The scene where Tessio is taken away to be killed is one of the film's most remarkable. He quickly calculates that his betrayal has been uncovered, then turns to the family's consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and makes a half-hearted plea for his life.
"Tom, can you get me off the hook? For old times' sake?"
"Can't do it, Sallie," answers Hagen.
After The Godfather, Vigoda was offered a role in the sitcom Barney Miller, set in a Brooklyn police station. He played Phil Fish, an elderly detective plagued by haemorrhoids, flat feet and a nagging wife. Vigoda turned grumbling into high comedic art and Fish became so popular that a spin-off was created for him.
Vigoda's later career received an unlikely jolt in 1982 when People magazine reported that he had died. The actor posed for a photograph sitting up in a coffin to prove the reports wrong. On the back of the story, he enjoyed a "third act" as a talk-show celebrity whose comic gimmick was: "I'm not dead yet." He continued to act and do voice work into his nineties.
Abe Vigoda was twice married. His first marriage, to Sonja Gohlke, was dissolved.
He then married Beatrice Schy, who predeceased him; he is survived by their daughter.