When I was very young, an elderly relative of mine decided that she was going to have her wake before she died. Why miss the fun? I remember very little of it—someone gave me cookies—but it’s a good idea. Similarly, why wait until people die before celebrating their careers? Yes, in some cases, you miss out on a last great film, but if someone is over eighty and hasn’t appeared in anything in fifteen years, or indeed is much younger and hasn’t appeared in anything since puberty, you can make a safe guess.
Or let’s take Abe Vigoda. Barney Miller first aired the year my older sister was born, and already, forty-one years ago, they were making jokes about how old Fish was. He was pushing retirement age for a New York City policeman at the time, Today, he’s ninety-four. His career goes back to 1938, years before my mother was born—his career is itself past retirment age! One of the best websites on the internet is www.abevigoda.com , which informs us of Abe Vigoda’s status. (Alive!) I glance at it sometimes just because it’s funny to me.
While his TV work goes back to the forties, his first real film role was in The Godfather. It was, indeed, this role that brought him to the attention of the makers of Barney Miller. There was something, I suspect, to his dreary countenance and gravely voice. He was, in many ways, his own straight man. When he says things, his face sets up the idea that whatever he says must be serious, and then he can say completely ridiculous things and get a laugh.
The problem, I think, is a tendency to use him as a nudge to the ribs. He’s a versatile actor, capable of both comedy and drama, and certainly capable of more than just being a punch line in that he exists at all. When I rewatched Joe Vs. The Volcano a couple of years ago, the first time I’d seen it since childhood, I took genuine pleasure in his appearance, because I knew he would be genuinely funny given the quality of the script.
Yes, Abe Vigoda is an old man and has been an old man for a very long time. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be thought of as just a punch line; he deserves better than to just get laughs because he’s Abe Vigoda. I don’t know if he’s skilled enough to do a leading role that would actually attract some notice, and I don’t know if anyone would let him anyway. After all, he would still be seen as just Abe Vigoda, right? It’s a puzzle. Maybe a good comedic role with a real script—the sort of thing they’d give to Eli Wallach or Alan Arkin. It would be a nice chance, anyway.