He was only in his early 50s when The Godfather brought him to the public’s attention, but character actor Abe Vigoda always seemed impossibly old, thanks to his sad eyes, slouchy posture, sighing delivery, and general air of world-weary defeat. That image was only enhanced in 1974 when he scored his career-defining role as cranky detective Phil Fish on the police sitcom Barney Miller. In his post-Barney years, though he still turned up in occasional movies like 1986’s Vasectomy: A Delicate Matter, Vigoda became something of a “whatever happened to,” leading to some widely circulated rumors that he was dead.
Improbably, this led to something of a late-in-life renaissance for Vigoda, and he became a regular on after-hours network talk shows, portraying a vaguely Golem-like figure. He had found a new purpose in life: refuting his own false obituaries. In the wake of Vigoda’s actual death at the ripe old age of 94, it is amusing to revisit some of his many television appearances of this nature. Though he became most closely associated with Conan O’Brien in his later years, Abe Vigoda started his “I’m not dead” shtick on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman in the late 1980s. Here, for instance, is a 1988 Vigoda appearance from Letterman’s show in which the wizened actor agrees to submit to “the mirror test” administered by Late Night director Hal Gurnee.
But it was with Conan O’Brien that Vigoda made his most memorable late-night appearances. Like Triumph The Insult Comic Dog and The Masturbating Bear, Abe Vigoda fit right into the cast of randomly assembled characters on NBC’s proudly post-modern, irony-drenched Late Night With Conan O’Brien. What made it work was that Vigoda was the eternal good sport, totally willing to participate in whatever bizarre shenanigans O’Brien and his writers could cook up. In one strange segment, for instance, the actor was treated as some kind of vast and mysterious celestial body, blotting out the camera’s view of the host.
When it was time to don Yoda years and indulge in a little Star Wars cosplay, well, Vigoda was up for that, too. Again, the running joke was the actor’s advanced age. “He’s the only character who’s older and wrinklier than the 900-year-old Yoda,” Conan declared. “Please welcome Abe Viyoda.”
Above all, O’Brien kept bringing Vigoda back to Late Night again and again because the actor resonated with the audience. In a segment about possible ratings-grabbing, sweeps periods stunts, O’Brien even toyed with the idea of doing an all-Vigoda edition of the show. Such a show, he speculated, would appeal to “lots of viewers who don’t normally watch Late Night.” This is an especially great moment, as it features multiple Abe Vigodas performing an a capella rendition of the Barney Miller theme song. Can there be any prouder way to cap a long and successful career in show business?