Like many fans of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" movies, I've long enjoyed quoting lines of dialogue from the Mafia saga. I've often wondered why the deceptively simple, almost trite, lines seem so memorable.
One of those moments comes when the capo Salvatore Tessio's betrayal of the Corleone family is uncovered.
"Tell Mike it was only business," Tessio says to family consigliere Tom Hagen. "I always liked him."
Then, in a half-hearted appeal to his long friendship with the family, Tessio says, “Tom, can you get me off the hook? For old times’ sake?”
Hagen shakes his head and says with a wry grin, "Can't do it, Sally."
Abe Vigoda, who died this week at age 94, plays Tessio with an everyman humanity. The dialogue catches us because we're surprised that a ruthless criminal like Michael Corleone, who's taken over for his father, would be moved by whether or not someone liked him.
Vigoda in displaying the mobster's sudden vulnerability illuminates one of Coppolla's themes, that the mobsters are people just like us, but caught up by forces bigger than themselves. We understand that Tessio retains an image of the younger idealistic Michael, who joined the Army to fight in World War II and wanted to leave the Mafia for a more honorable life. The dominant story of Michael's corruption is underscored by the bland conversation. Hagen's use of the nickname "Sally" also carries much weight, balancing ancient affection with the present overriding reality of Tessio's violation of the Mafia' code.
The central performances of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael receive deserved praise, but "The Godfather" films' strength lies in the brilliance of the many secondary roles. Vigoda's Tessio is one of the most memorable, especially in that brief encounter with Robert Duvall's Hagen.
Along with capturing widespread recognition for his Tessio role, Vigoda also reached pop culture stardom as the exhausted elderly detective Fish in the droll TV police comedy "Barney Miller." His late success capped a long actor's career, including many roles in the theater.
Vigoda's obituaries also noted that he was at the center of another pop culture phenomenon, false reports of his death several years ago. He deftly turned those rumors into a new jolt for his career with TV appearances to prove that he was still alive and a Web site.
While "Barney Miller" has receded from the air waves, "The Godfather" is continually shown on TV, ensuring that Vigoda will continue to have his share of screen immortality.