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Film Why the late Abe Vigoda was one of a kind in the acting world

No, it's not a hoax. Abe Vigoda has died.

Since the early 1980s, when People magazine mistakenly referred to the spindly, sullen, sad-eyed American character actor as dead, Vigoda's passing has been something of a Hollywood inside joke – an early example of what we'd now call a "meme." It helped that Vigoda took such exaggerated reports of his own demise with typical good humour. After the People issue came out, he playfully posed for a photo reading it while sitting upright in a coffin.

Such jokes marked Vigoda's later career. He frequently popped up on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's late-night talk shows to mock rumours of his own death. In one such skit, Letterman tried to summon Vigoda's ghost, only to have the actor walk in and announce that he's still alive. For more than a decade the website isabevigodadead.com existed purely to report on the actor's mortality. Then, early Tuesday afternoon, the website was updated to read, simply, "Yes." Vigoda had died in his sleep at his daughter's home in New Jersey, age 94.

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Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Vigoda was best known for his role as Tessio, the treacherous Corleone family capo in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece The Godfather (he also appeared briefly in the 1974 sequel) and as Sergeant Philip K. Fish on the long-running ABC police sitcom Barney Miller.

Vigoda landed his role in The Godfather after auditioning at an open casting call. His physical presence, at once gentle and deeply menacing, perfectly suited the character – a trusted associate of the film's crime family who turns traitor and is and is killed off-screen as the film reaches its brutal climax.

On Barney Miller, Vigoda was one of several foils to Hal Linden's sensible, straight-man police captain. As Fish, Vigoda further stretched his physical and dramatic range, playing a slumped, world-weary detective haunted by persistent hemorrhoids. A fan-favourite character, Vigoda's whinging cop even got his own spinoff – the short-lived ABC sitcom Fish, which dealt with his domestic life after he and his wife adopt a group of racially mixed children. (Sergeant Fish's squabbling phone calls with his better half were a running joke through the original run of Barney Miller.)

Throughout the later 1970s, '80s and '90s, Vigoda's imposing form was put to good use in a number of memorable bit parts and cameos in movies (Joe Versus the Volcano, Good Burger, the Pauly Shore comedy Jury Duty, Larry Cohen's cult horror flick The Stuff) and television (As The World Turns, Law & Order, those self-parodying Late Night with Conan O'Brien appearances). That Vigoda – and his name, and whether or not he was alive or dead – became a bit of a punchline felt like a bittersweet comment on the fates of even our most beloved character actors.

Performers like Vigoda may not typically become household names, tabloid sensations or haul home the hardware on Oscar night. But they're the acting world's utility players, at once chameleonic and inimitable as they cycle between different roles, sort of like The Godfather's sly, calculating Tessio switching mob allegiances to suit his own scheming self-interest.

While certainly a little macabre, the decades of jokes about Vigoda's death revealed something about the way we consider our character actors and utility players. We remember their roles, their work, their unmistakable on-camera presence, unconcerned with the sort of ghastly prying into private lives that defines A-list celebrity culture.

Actors like Abe Vigoda are always alive, on screen and in our shared cultural memory, even when a website delivers that bummer news that the man himself has passed away.

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