WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Ron Palillo, the actor best known as the nerdy high school student Arnold Horshack on the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, died Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He was 63.
Palillo suffered an apparent heart attack at his home about 4 a.m., said Karen Poindexter, a close friend of the actor. He was pronounced dead at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
Palillo was inextricably linked with the character he played from 1975 to 1979 on Kotter, the hit ABC sitcom, in which title character Gabe Kotter returns to his Brooklyn alma mater to teach a group of loveable wiseguys known as the Sweathogs. Horshack was the nasally teen who yelped, “Oooh, ooh,” and shot his hand skyward whenever Kotter posed a question.
The show was a ratings success and pop cultural phenomenon, injecting smart-Alec phrases such as “Up your nose with a rubber hose” into the mainstream and propelling co-star John Travolta to stardom. But the series only lasted as long as a high school education and its end, for Palillo, brought difficulty.
He said he felt exiled throughout the 1980s, unable to find parts, sinking into depression, and rarely venturing from his apartment. When offers did come, he felt typecast as Horshack.
“While I loved him, I really loved him, I didn’t want to do him forever,” he told the Birmingham News in 1994.
Ronald Palillo was born April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Connecticut, eventually dropping the first “o” from his surname. His father died of lung cancer when he was 10 and he developed a stutter. His mother thought getting him involved in a local theatre might help. He fell in love with the stage and overcame his speech impediment.
He attended the University of Connecticut and earned parts in Shakespearean productions before his big break.
He told interviewers that his dying father’s voice inspired Horshack’s trademark wheezing laugh, but when he auditioned for “Kotter” he thought he’d be passed over for others who had more of a tough-guy New York look. The casting agents knew better, and so did Gabe Kaplan, who played Kotter.
“When Ron walked into the audition and did his first line, ’Hello, how are you, I’m Arnold Horshack,’ I said ’That’s him, That’s the guy,”’ Kaplan recalled in an email to The Associated Press.
“Ron was a wonderful person and talent, and helped catapult ’Welcome Back, Kotter’ to great success,” Travolta said. “We will miss him.”
Besides Travolta, who played Vinnie Barbarino, also cast for the series was Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington and Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein. Hegyes died earlier this year.
“I think he was the smartest kid in school,” Palillo said of his character in a 2009 interview with the Miami Herald. “He was giving up his aptitude in order to be liked. Then and now, that is a very common thing in teenagers.”
Palillo went on to get a host of bit parts in shows from “The Love Boat” to “Cagney and Lacey” to “The A-Team,” and played himself for a time on the series “Ellen.” But he remained best-known for his role on “Kotter,” and focused in his later years on stage directing and writing.
His last act in life mirrored his most famous one, in a real-life classroom instead of one at the fictional James Buchanan High School. Palillo taught acting at G-Star School of the Arts, a high school in West Palm Beach. He was due to return for the school year Tuesday morning, Poindexter said, and classes were to resume next week.
Palillo is survived by his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm; two brothers, and a sister. Poindexter said that while her friend might, at times, have resented the shadow Horshack cast over him, he remained fond of the character and knew the part was always more of a blessing than a curse. He remained close to his co-stars, she said, and knew how closely fans related to the characters.
“All of us have been or known one of those Sweathogs,” he told The Los Angeles Times last year.