Obituary: Ron Palillo / Portrayed the goofy Horshack on 'Welcome Back, Kotter'

April 2, 1949 - Aug. 14, 2012


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Ron Palillo, who portrayed the goofy high school underachiever Arnold Horshack in the hit 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter" with such definitive oddballness that he had trouble for years afterward finding work as an actor, died Aug. 14 in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 63.

The apparent cause was a heart attack, said his agent, Scott Stander.

"I know him, love what he does, not right for the part," Mr. Palillo said in a 1997 newspaper interview, repeating what he said was the mantra of every casting director he met after his years on "Kotter," which was on ABC from 1975 to 1979. "Everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack. I resented Horshack for so many years."

"Welcome Back, Kotter" starred Gabe Kaplan as a high school teacher returning to his alma mater in Brooklyn to take over an unruly class of remedial students known collectively as the Sweathogs (because their top-floor classroom was always hot). The Sweathogs were Vinnie Barbarino (played by John Travolta), Freddie Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) and Horshack, to whom Mr. Palillo imparted two trademarks: a braying laugh that sounded like a Disposall with a utensil caught in it, and a wild waving of his hand to answer Kotter (usually wrongly) while grunting: "Ooh, ooh, Mista Kahta! Mista Kahta!"

Mr. Travolta was the only one of the four to become a star. Hegyes died in January at 60.

After the show ended, Mr. Palillo had supporting roles on television series like "The Love Boat" and "The A-Team." But the Horshack typecasting became chronic.

"I think producers could smell the desperation in me," he told The Akron Beacon Journal in 1997.

Things changed in 1991 when he moved to New York. He was in the daytime drama "One Life to Live" for a year and had the lead role in an Off Off Broadway production of "Amadeus." He taught drama at the University of Connecticut, his alma mater. In 2010, in West Hartford, Conn., he directed the first production of "The Lost Boy," a musical he wrote based on the life of J.M. Barrie, author of "Peter Pan."

Mr. Palillo was born on April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Conn. He became involved in high school theater as a way of managing his stuttering, which abated over the years. Soon after graduating from college he was cast as an understudy in Lanford Wilson's Off Broadway play "Hot l Baltimore," the job he held when he landed the Horshack role.

Last year, Mr. Palillo, who moved to Florida in 2010 to be near his aging mother, became a drama teacher at the G-Star School of the Arts, a charter high school in West Palm Beach.

Mr. Palillo made his peace with Horshack in recent years. The character was based largely on the person he was in high school, he told The Miami Herald in 2009. "He was the smartest kid in school," he said.

The dumb act, he said, was a bluff. "He was giving up his aptitude in order to be liked. Then and now, that is a very common thing in teenagers."

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