Ron Palillo dies of heart attack
Ron Palillo — the actor who played the role of goofy high school underachiever Arnold Horshack in the hit1970s ABC sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” — passed away on Tuesday morning at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was 63 years old.
According to Scott Stander, the agent of Ron Palillo, the apparent cause of the actor’s death was a heart attack.
“I know him, love what he does, not right for the part,” Ron Palillo said during a 1997 newspaper interview, repeating what he said was the mantra of every casting director he met after his stint on “Welcome Back, Kotter” which was aired on ABC from 1975 to 1979. “Everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack. I resented Horshack for so many years.”
The show “Welcome Back, Kotter” starred Gabe Kaplan as a high school teacher returning to his alma mater in Brooklyn to take over a disobedient and headstrong class of remedial students known collectively as the Sweathogs (in reference to the location of their classroom on top of a building which was always hot). The Sweathogs were composed of Vinnie Barbarino (played by John Travolta), Freddie Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) and Arnold Horshack, to whom Ron Palillo imparted two trademarks: a whinny laugh which sounded like a DisposAll with a utensil caught in it, and a wild waving of his hand to answer Mr. Kotter, usually wrongly, while grunting: “Ooh, ooh, Mista Kahta! Mista Kahta!”
Actor John Travolta was the only one of the four casts to become a superstar. Robert Hegyes passed away in January at age 60.
After the hit TV show ended, Palillo had supporting roles on TV series like The A-Team” and “The Love Boat.” But the Arnold Horshack typecasting became incessant.
“I think producers could smell the desperation in me,” Palillo told The Akron Beacon Journal back in 1997.
When Ron Palillo moved to New York City in 1991, things have changed for him. He appeared in the daytime drama “One Life to Live” for one year and was given the lead role in an Off Off Broadway production of “Amadeus.” The “Welcome Back, Kotter” star also taught drama at the University of Connecticut, his alma mater. In 2010, he directed the first production of “The Lost Boy” in West Hartford, Connecticut. It was a musical he wrote based on the life of J. M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.”
Ron Palillo was born on April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Connecticut. He became involved in high school theater as a way of managing his stuttering, which eventually lessened over the following years. Right after he graduated from college, Palillo was cast as an understudy in Lanford Wilson’s Off Broadway play “Hot L Baltimore” — a job he held when he landed the role of Arnold Horshack.
Just last year, Ron Palillo, who decided to move 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.
Palillo’s survivors include his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm, as well as a sister and two brothers. His mother passed away last year.
In recent years, Palillo made his peace with the character of Arnold Horshack. The actor told The Miami Herald in 2009 that Horshack was based hugely on the person he was in high school. “He was the smartest kid in school,” Palillo said. On the other hand, the dumb act was just a bluff, Ron Palillo added. “He was giving up his aptitude in order to be liked. Then and now, that is a very common thing in teenagers,” the actor said at the time.