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Abe Vigoda, Tessio In 'The Godfather' And Fish In 'Barney Miller,' Dies At 94


And we have news now of a death. The actor who played Tessio in "The Godfather" and Sgt. Fish on TV, Abe Vigoda, was 94. There has been news before of his death back in 1982. His demise was reported in People magazine mistakenly. And since then it's been a sort of running joke with the actor often in on the laughs. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong on Abe Vigoda, the man and the meme.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There's an early Beastie Boys song that has this really goofy line.


BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Girl in a castle and one in the pagoda, you know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda.

LIMBONG: It doesn't really matter if Abe Vigoda really had good rhymes, but he had jokes. This is from his role as Fish, a New York City cop in the 1970s sitcom "Barney Miller."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Good morning, Fish.

ABE VIGODA: (As Phil Fish) Good morning. Good morning, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's wrong with your foot?

VIGODA: (As Phil Fish) I broke a shoelace.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, didn't want to stop and fix it. You can't stoop over in this neighborhood.

LIMBONG: Abe Vigoda was a tall guy with hunched-over shoulders and droopy eyes, a distinctive character-actor. And for the last decades of his life, his biggest role was playing himself. He made appearances on late-night TV, both Letterman and Conan O'Brien. This is from a bit called Rejected Star Wars Characters.


O'BRIEN: (As character) This next character was cut from the new Star Wars movie because whenever he was on camera, he brought the film to a dead halt. He's the only character who's older and wrinklier than the 900-year-old Yoda. Please welcome Abe Viyoda.


LIMBONG: And Abe Vigoda, dressed in a red grandpa sweater and Yoda-like alien ears, walks across the stage. He doesn't say anything, doesn't even do much. But you can hear the people flipping out. If you listen closely, you can hear somebody go...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Yeah, Abe.

LIMBONG: Yeah, Abe. There's a Facebook and a Twitter feed called Abe Vigoda facts, dedicated to how old Abe Vigoda is. There's a website called abevigoda.com, and for years, all it had was a picture of him and the line, Abe Vigoda is alive. Now it says, Abe Vigoda is dead. There is even a song called "Abe Vigoda Is Dead." It's morbid, but it's praise for a character who made a big impression as Sal Tessio, a mafia henchman in the first "Godfather" movie.


JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) What the hell is this?

RICHARD CASTELLANO: (As Peter Clemenza) It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.


LIMBONG: By the way, this song, it's by a band called Abe Vigoda. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 27, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, the line introducing the clip used from The Godfather incorrectly implies that Abe Vigoda's character, Tessio, is speaking. In fact it's the characters Sonny Corleone and Clemenza.
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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