In 1982, People magazine killed Abe Vigoda with two words. Vigoda, a wonderful actor famous for his appearances in The Godfather and as Phil Fish in Barney Miller, became “the late” Abe Vigoda. But Vigoda was alive. He had become a victim of obiticide.
People believed what they read. As Craig Silverman notes in Regret The Error, passersby would stop Vigoda on the street and tell him how much he looked that guy with the deep-set eyes who played Fish on Barney Miller.
Jeff Jarvis was working at People when they killed Abe Vigoda. He explains how it occurred, recalling that in the lengthy process of creating a People news story everyone got to chip in. In today’s dull newsrooms, where it’s all about getting the headline and keywords out fast and adding the facts later (if at all), Jarvis’ recollection harks back to a more involving (and better paid) time.
…once reported by a cadre of correspondents and written by a staff writer in New York, it [the story] was edited (read: rewritten) by a senior editor and edited (yes, rewritten), by an assistant managing editor, and then edited (and, with surprising frequency, rewritten) by the managing editor. And then the research came along to try to correct all the errors this process inserted in the story. (This is how People famous declared Abe Vigoda dead; he was next seen in an ad in Variety holding up a copy of that magazine while sitting up in a coffin.)
To paraphrase the doomed mobster Tessio, Vigoda’s character in The Godfather, Jarvis could offer the plea, “Tell Abe it was only business.”
Despite the denials, the story of Vigoda’s death endured.
In 1997, a store worker at Bloomingdale’s, New York, told him: “‘You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda, because he’s dead. Wait, are you Abe Vigoda? You can’t be!”
Once a producer called Mr. Vigoda’s agent looking for ”an Abe Vigoda type.”
On Aug. 10, 1988: Hal Gurnee showed David Letterman and his viewers that reports on the death of Abe Vigoda are often exaggerated.
Abe was alive. But as one wag put it, ”I’ve seen Abe in person. He only looks dead.”