Godfather star and the celeb death rumour: The decades-long history of the Abe Vigoda death hoax

Abe Vigoda as the menacing hitman Tessio in The Godfather. Photo / Paramount
Abe Vigoda as the menacing hitman Tessio in The Godfather. Photo / Paramount

Long before the internet helped celebrity death rumors spread like rapid fire, there was the Abe Vigoda hoax.

The character actor best known for roles in The Godfather and Barney Miller died on Tuesday at the age of 94. But for decades, Vigoda's death had been rumored and mistakenly reported. His status among the living became a joke unto itself, and Vigoda played along.

It all began in 1982 when People mistakenly referred to the "Barney Miller" actor as "the late" Abe Vigoda. He was 60 at the time and missed a wrap party for the show.

While People corrected the mistake, the idea of "the late" Vigoda persisted and media outlets throughout the years have erroneously reported him as dead. (A reporter at local television station in New Jersey corrected her mistake in 1987, a day after she called him "the late Abe Vigoda" on air.)

"My wife keeps getting condolence cards from people who believe I died," Vigoda told the Toronto Star in 1988. "Many are producers. I'm sure there are many who may have thought about me for a role but said, 'No, he's dead.'"

While the rumors may have cost him work, Vigoda was a good sport about it all. He held up a copy of People while sitting in a coffin for a photo that ran in Variety. And he made numerous late night appearances to confirm that he was alive and working.

"Thank you, David, for having me. Yes, I'm alive," Vigoda told David Letterman in the 1980s. Vigoda then went on to list his recent work.

"So you're anything but dead," Letterman responded, and then asked Vigoda to breathe on a mirror, to which Vigoda graciously obliged. "This ought to silence the skeptics," Letterman quipped.

Years later, Conan O'Brien took up the Abe Vigoda is-old-and-maybe-not-alive joke. In a one of his semi-regular appearances on the show, Vigoda appeared in a bit about rejected Star Wars characters in which O'Brien welcomed "Abe Vi-Yoda" who had been cut from the movie "because whenever he was on camera, he brought the film to a dead halt."
Vigoda walked across the stage wearing giant Yoda ears while giving the audience a classic curmudgeon face.

Vigoda even took the joke to the silver screen, playing an old cook named Otis in Good Burger.

"I should've died years ago," Otis says.

Eventually, the Internet brought the joke to a whole other level, allowing anyone who may wonder about Vigoda to check in on the actor on multiple platforms. AbeVigoda.com was set up in 2001 with the sole purpose of informing the world about the actor's living status.

There was an Abe Vigoda Firefox extension, a aFacebook page and @AbeVigodaUpdate, which tweeted Vigoda was "still alive" minutes after his death had been reported by the Associated Press.

Vigoda was frequently the butt of jokes at Friars Club Roasts, which he frequently attended. Roaster Jeffery Ross wrote in 2009 that "crafting morbid cracks about him has become a favorite hobby of mine." At Rob Reiner's roast, Ross said he wrote more jokes about Vigoda than the guest of honour.

"The truth is," Ross wrote, "I love the guy and I hope he lives forever."

- Washington Post

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