“Barney Miller” Character Analysis: Abe Vigoda as Detective Philip Fish

The character that most casual fans identify with Barney Miller is Detective Philip Fish.  Many people who have never seen the show are aware that Abe Vigoda was part of the cast. This is mostly due to the fact that Vigoda made frequent cameo appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien (as well as the fact that he played Tessio in the first Godfather movie). However, Vigoda being the sole link for many to Barney Miller is extremely unfortunate. Of the eight seasons that original episodes of Barney Miller were produced, Vigoda was only a part of  the cast for three full seasons (he only appeared in the two-part season four opener which was called Good-Bye, Mr.Fish).  By the time Vigoda said his final goodbye on Barney Miller, he was already starring in his spinoff series, Fish. Fish first aired in February 1977, so for a time Vigoda was a regular on both shows. Fish was created for Vigoda’s character, so he was gradually being phased out of  Barney Miller throughout the third season.

By time Vigoda made his exit, his “replacement” (Steve Landesberg as Det. Sgt. Arthur Dietrich) had been introduced to the audience. Dietrich was a recurring character on Barney Miller  from the middle of  season 2. The reason I put the word replacement in quotations is because Dietrich was an entirely different  character from Fish and therefore was not really replacing Fish.  The creators of Barney Miller were preparing for the departure of Fish for quite some time.  According to Vince Waldron’s extremely informative book Classic Sitcoms, Vigoda himself and ABC network executives were pushing the creators to give Fish his own separate show by the second season of Barney Miller.  The series Fish only ran for 34 episodes. This is similar to what happened a few years earlier when McLean Stevenson decided to leave M*A*S*H after only three seasons. But what both Vigoda and Stevenson departing their respective shows when they did proves is that if a show has a great ensemble cast, great directors, and of course great writing, no one person is responsible for the show’s success. This is part of why I personally have somewhat of a problem with Vigoda and others who have acted similarly (but that’s just my opinion).

Anyway, let’s get away from Vigoda’s off-screen problems and get to the ones he had on-screen. Detective Phil Fish is a man who has lived a long life and is tired of it all. He is plagued with aches and pains and often seems as though he could drop dead at any moment. He is often irritated by his overly devoted wife Bernice (played by Florence Stanley).  Fish is extremely committed to his work and his colleagues have a lot of respect for him even though he is much older than the other 12th precinct detectives. Throughout his three seasons on Barney Miller, Fish was getting closer and closer to retirement. This makes him incredibly uncomfortable because he doesn’t know what his life will be like if he is not a police officer.  When Fish does retire, he and Bernice adopt 5 foster kids. Fish’s  post retirement life was not as bad as he thought it would be. 

Even though his portrayer is still alive, I believe that the character of Fish died in late 1980’s or the early 1990’s. His daughter Beverly made him a grandfather twice over and gave him a great deal of happiness during the final years of his life. Fish didn’t see too much of his former coworkers after his retirement. This is mainly because most of them were still in the prime of their careers. The two exceptions to this were Inspector Luger (who retired a few years after Fish did) and of course Barney.

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