Legendary character actor Abe Vigoda has died aged 94.

His leathery, sunken-eyed face made him ideal for playing the over-the-hill detective Phil Fish in the 1970s TV series Barney Miller and the doomed Mafia soldier in The Godfather – his most famous roles.

Vigoda’s daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, told The Associated Press that Vigoda died on Tuesday morning in his sleep at Fuchs’ home in Woodland Park, New Jersey.

 Abe Vigoda arrives at the 2011 TV Land Awards in New YorkVigoda was best known for his role in The Godfather (Peter Kramer/AP)

She said: “This man was never sick”.”The cause of death was old age.

Vigoda worked in relative obscurity as a supporting actor in the New York theatre and in television until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the 1972 Oscar-winning The Godfather.

He played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) who hopes to take over the family after Vito’s death by killing his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).

The great success of the film and The Godfather Part II made his face and voice, if not his name, recognisable to the general public and led to numerous roles, often as hoodlums.

But it was his comic turn in Barney Miller, which starred Hal Linden and ran from 1975 to 1982, that brought Vigoda’s greatest recognition.

Actor Abe Vigoda of Vigoda and his wife Beatrice in 1978 (AP)

Vigoda remained a regular on Barney Miller until 1977 when he took the character to his own series, Fish. He remained a popular character actor in films, including Cannonball Run II, Look Who’s Talking, Joe Versus the Volcano and North.

He was married twice, most recently to Beatrice Schy, who died in 1992. He had his daughter with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke, who has also died. Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren Jamie, Paul and Steven, and a great-grandson.

Strangely, Vigoda often appeared on lists of living celebrities believed to have died.

In 1997 he was shopping in Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when a salesman remarked: “You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda because he’s dead.”