Abe Vigoda, who played Det. Phil Fish on Barney Miller, has died at age 94. Fish is one of the great sitcom characters, a perennially weary cop with a jaundiced view of life, and Vigoda played him to perfection.
The character of Fish was significantly older than Vigoda was when he was cast in the role. A mere 53, Vigoda auditioned for the Barney Miller role to play Fish, a policeman on the verge of retirement. Fish was famous in the Miller squad-room for spending more time in the bathroom than he did on his beat; his complaints about various ailments, from sore feet to colds to hemorrhoids, became artful little arias of discontent. Vigoda knew how to play the curmudgeon without having him curdle into off-putting bitterness.
“Probably more people remember Fish than Barney,” said the man who played Barney, Hal Linden. “And he was only on the show three years, because he spun off to his own show.” In 1977, Vigoda starred in the two-season sitcom Fish, which concentrated more on the private life of the cop and his wife, Bernice, played by Florence Stanley.
When an actor becomes so identified by a role, there’s a temptation to downplay the skill it takes — some people think, well, he was born to play it. In fact, Vigoda was a meticulous performer who worked diligently with the Barney Miller writers to make Fish as comically morose as possible, while still retaining enough energy to make it believable that Fish would still be doing his job.
Ironically now, Vigoda became famous at a certain point for the regular rumors that he had died. Beginning sometime during the 1980s and only increasing in the internet age, rumors of Vigoda’s death became something of a joke. People Magazine ran a piece in 1982 referring to “the late Abe Vigoda.” The actor responded by appearing in a photo in Variety holding the People cover while sitting in a coffin. Just look at this 1988 David Letterman clip, in which Vigoda responds to yet another rumor of his death, proving he’s alive by blowing onto the mirror of Letterman’s producer, Hal Gurnee:
Vigoda said he saw Fish as a pessimist, but not a cynic. It was a tricky balancing act that Vigoda navigated adroitly. The deadpan expression that gave Fish the appearance of having seen terrible things during his life as a cop was actually a realistic note that Vigoda built into this exceedingly funny character.