Thursday, February 4, 2016

Abe Vigoda da vida, Baby

*brushes off dust*
After a hiatus of several years, I'm trying to recharge the blog again. Part of the issue, outside of many personal circumstances, has been too many ideas of where and how to start back. Well, recent events forced my hand. Abe Vigoda finally died at the age of 94.

Vigoda will be best remembered for three things: The Godfather, Barney Miller, and people assuming he was dead or wondering how he could still be alive (down to the website which answered that question, Often, when celebrity deaths were announced, I would jokingly suggest Abe Vigoda was the mastermind, since despite greatly exaggerated reports and rumors, he continued on. The classic cop comedy Barney Miller is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, I like deadpan, and I like great character actors, so all of that factors into the following mini-tribute to the Man Who Would Be Fish.

Vigoda's early career included stage work, especially Shakespeare, and bits on the CBS Radio series You Are There in 1949 (playing older characters in crowds or juries during famous moments in history). Also in 1949, at least according to several logs and the unreliable IMDb, Vigoda was in a TV episode of Suspense (based on the venerable radio series). "The Lunch Box" (which had been done on radio as "The Lunch Kit," originally for The Whistler in 1944 and then on Suspense in 1949), but the Paley Center for Media, which has the only copy I'm aware of, doesn't list him. Perhaps he was uncredited, or wasn't in it at all, but the place and time are right. Hopefully someday we can confirm.

Moving along, Vigoda continued to do stage Shakespeare and the like, and then appeared a couple of times on a soap opera by the name of Dark Shadows. My friend Danny Horn, who chronicles the series at Dark Shadows Every Day, discussed Vigoda's two 1969 episodes as elderly silversmith Ezra Braithwaite, who dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. After playing multiple ensemble roles in the Broadway play Inquest, Vigoda returned once more in 1970, as elderly antique dealer Otis Greene who... dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. Well, it's good to have a niche.
Then came The Godfather in 1972, which marked a shift for a time away from playing old men who dropped dead. His performance as Sal Tessio led to more supporting roles mostly as mob types, including Anthony Quinn's The Don Is Dead (1973), a sort of poor man's Godfather, and mob bosses in episodes of Kojak, Cannon, and Hawaii 5-0.
Now in 1974, we have Barney Miller, or rather the pilot, The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller. As Vigoda told the story, when he came to audition, having just finished a run, producer Danny Arnold immediately pegged him as the old cop, Sgt. Philip K. Fish, and said “You look like you have hemorrhoids.” (Vigoda says he didn’t, but *Fish* certainly did. Fish had everything, including menopause, which he caught from Bernice).
The pilot is filmed rather than taped, but has the same station house set, so it's like watching everyone transferred to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At this point, the show is designed to divide evenly between home and precinct life, with an almost entirely different (and mostly white) squad roster. Also Barney's wife Liz (Abby Dalton) has a windy politician uncle (played by character actor Henry Beckman), who gets third billing in the opening (Vigoda gets fifth and last, but still ahead of two other cops who wait until the end). Val Bisoglia, playing an Italian cop who likes to gamble (and which would become Yemana) later played guest roles on the show. Rod Perry (Wilson, the black cop and a master of disguise) did one episode of the series proper in the same role, but basically Ron Glass' Harris filled that slot. And the prototype for Wojo is played by Charles Haid, who would go on to play Andy Renko on Hill Street Blues.
As noted, none of these made it to the series as regulars (even Liz was recast, with Barbara Barrie, before they realized the show was basically a one-set series focusing on the 12th Precinct, and she faded out). But most of the minor parts (Barney's kids, his daughter's boyfriend, Chu Chu Malave as the perp Ramon, and Buddy Lester as a bookie) made it when the script was reworked as the first series episode, "Ramon," which premiered midseason in January 1975. Of course, Hal Linden as Barney and Abe Vigoda as Fish were retained (no significant differences in characterization for either).
Fish, as Brooks and Marsh put it in their book The Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV Shows, "looked and acted like every breath might be his last." He had kidney stones, he had heartburn, he had arthritis, he had anything and everything. His constant need to use the bathroom was as much a running gag as Yemana's bad coffee, and his one-sided telephone calls with wife Bernice were hilarious. (When she did appear, played by Florence Stanley, she revealed herself as a sweet, insecure, raspy-voiced woman who was better than her trying husband deserved, despite his own put-upon attitude). Mostly he felt oppressed by age (and knowing he would soon be forcibly retired) and so he used complaints and dry quips to fight back. He became the hit of the show and earned Vigoda two Emmy nominations while a regular, and a third for his departure episode "Goodbye Mr. Fish" at the start of season 4. In fact, his last season on Barney Miller was concurrent with the Fish spinoff (which arose from the producers' desire for a spinoff, experimented with in earlier episodes, and Vigoda wanting more of a showcase; as TV Guide recalled in 1979, he suggested renaming the show "Fish and Barney"!) I'll talk more about that in a later post.

When not fishing, Vigoda appeared in two episodes of The Rockford Files, one pre-Barney Miller and one post. The first ("The Kirkoff Case," the first episode of the series proper after the two-hour pilot, in 1974) has Vigoda as a "labor union organizer," clearly to be read as mobster. One of his goons is played by Milt Kogan (Kogan the uniform cop in early episodes of "Barney Miller"; the actor left but the character was mentioned to the end of the run, even earning a promotion to sergeant!) It's a one-scene part but Vigoda makes the most of it.
More impressive, however, is his turn in the cleverly titled "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead" (and they are) from 1978. Spoilers after the pic, but the pleasure lies more in the viewing than being surprised.
Vigoda plays Phil "The Dancer" Gabriel, a mob boss whose nickname is now tinged with irony since he's wheelchair bound due to botched hip surgery. In "Dr. Phibes" fashion (minus the frog masks and blood draining), he sets a hit out on the entire surgical team (which includes Robert Loggia). The final scene, where he reacts to footage of the surgery and realizes that "you let a salesman" actually place the part, is a gem of fury.
In a rare case on Rockford, it's easy to share Gabriel's indignation. The nervous salesman in question, in an off-camera questioning, asks if the man in the limo (Vigoda as Gabriel) had a "face like a bassett hound," the best description of Vigoda this side of the Boris Karloff comparisons.

They got good mileage out of that in the second season "Barney Miller" episode "Discovery," in which a computer error lists Fish as dead (thus starting the trend!) When another character tells Fish he looks just like Karloff, the inevitable answer is "That's because we're both dead."

Speaking of Karloff, the resemblance was also put to use when he guest starred on The Bionic Woman as an ancient, sinister butler named Barlow, in a sort of homage-slash-spoof of Old Dark House mysteries (complete with Vincent Price as both dead man and his scheming twin brother). Vigoda had played a similar role in a 1960s off-Broadway version of The Cat and the Canary, and in 1986, he did the Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace as the murderous Jonathan Brewster, a part originated by Boris Karloff (in fact, the joke in dialogue is that botched plastic surgery has left Jonathan looking like Karloff). Vigoda also played Fish in the

After Fish's cancellation, Vigoda continued the TV guest circuit, including the expected visits to Fantasy Island, The Love Boat (romancing Nancy Walker), Murder She Wrote, and the short-lived Sweepstakes (a modernized The Millionaire with Love Boat touches), and also BJ and the Bear, but out of respect for the deceased, we'll ignore that. Later guest spots included Law & Order (as a retired NYPD detective, surprise surprise) and a Christmas episode of "Wings," called "All About Christmas Eve," in 1996.
On the latter, Vigoda played the brother of another cranky old man... diminutive character great Phil Leeds, who had been a frequent visitor to the 12th Precinct, notably in the 1977 episode “Group Home” (the title doesn't apply to an actual plot element, but "Fish" had started by this point, so Bernice and two of the kids from the group home pop in). Assigned to mugging detail, Fish is in drag again, and followed by infatuated admirer Phil Leeds (who recalled that Barney often cast him as a “dirty old man,” but in this case, he comes off as a sweet, lonely soul desperate for any human connection).

Most of Vigoda's other film credits, apart from The Godfather and its sequel, were fairly forgettable or downright painful, including Good Burger, the Pauly Shore courtroom "comedy" Jury Duty(as the judge), The Misery Brothers (wearing lipstick and earrings in the trailer), and the title role in an oddball Cannon action thriller Keaton's Cop (opposite Lee Majors and Don Rickles), and many movies that barely got a release. There were exceptions, and he did have a very brief cameo in the cult horror comedy The Stuff (1985), in a commercial, married to Clara "Where's the beef?" Peller:

Other fairly respectable turns included an Alaskan grandpa in North, a vet in the Christmas movie Prancer, and yet another mob boss, this time animated, as Sal "The Wheezer" in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). Joe Versus the Volcano improbably but brilliantly cast Abe Vigoda as an island chieftain. Near the bubbling volcano of the title, the chief conducts one of the shortest marriage ceremonies. The image below says far more about the role than mere words could.
Much of his work in later years (and for Vigoda, that was basically two decades of later years) was basically showing up and being Abe Vigoda. Two spoofs on TVLand award shows (as Mr. Big from Sex in the City oppposite Bea Arthur, and as the hunky plumber from Desperate Housewives), a very brief glimpse in the Snickers commercial with Betty White (another player turns into Abe Vigoda, in Fish garb, who says "That hurt"), and especially his frequent visits to Late Night with Conan O'Brien, often for quick gags which were funny mainly because it was old, deadpan Abe Vigoda being covered in Christmas decorations or sitting on a chair while a Vigodal eclipse occurs.

Farewell, Abe. May Heaven be devoid of annoying kids and kidney stones.
Tomorrow, I hope to fulfill a long-held plan, which I discussed with my friend Ivan Shreve, author of Mayberry Mondays (chronicling every episode Mayberry RFD) and Doris Days (The Doris Day Show). The latter has been far more intermittent, but given my own delays, and having watched a few episodes, I can hardly blame him. In any event, Fish Fridays will commence in earnest, at least up until the second season premiere (the only second season episode I could find), including the two-part Barney Miller “Goodbye, Mr. Fish” (the character’s retirement) and possibly a look at his two return visits.

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