In this strange month of celebrity deaths, it's usually easy to figure out why they hit us so hard. When it's someone like David Bowie or Alan Rickman or Glenn Frey, it makes sense because the work they did reached so many people and they were all fairly successful. But what to make of a character actor who didn't become famous until he was in his 50s and hadn't acted regularly since the '90s?
Abe Vigoda, who died yesterday at 94 of what his daughter called "old age," was different. He emerged on Broadway in the 1960s, but it was his turn in the 1970s as Tessio in The Godfather and later as Detective Fish on the ABC comedy Barney Miller (and the short-lived spinoff Fish) that made him a household face, if not name. On Barney Miller, Vigoda became known as the sad-eyed, lumbering guy who was always headed to the bathroom, and he parlayed that image into countless roles in TV shows and movies.
Because of his image, Vigoda was one of the first celebrities that people would constantly assume was already dead, even as far back as the 1980s. He poked fun at that by making numerous late night TV appearances on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's shows.
Vigoda even showed up, at the age of 92, dancing on stage in a wombat costume at a Phish concert. Of course, in recent years, the running joke when somebody died was to check IsAbeVigodaDead.com and thankfully, Abe was always still alive. Until yesterday. Abe Vigoda was a larger-than-life presence who always knew how to laugh at himself. Just hearing his name or seeing his picture makes me smile. If that isn't a great legacy, I don't know what is.