Ron Palilo, who played cute-but-nerdy sweathog Arnold Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79), has died at age 63. Kotter made him a household name. He didn't appear much on tv or in movies afterwards, but he was busy in live theater, and later he used his love of acting to become a drama teacher. He is survived by his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm.
I didn't watch Kotter very often. The story -- about a wisecracking underachiever who decides to move back to his old community and teach the new generation of underachievers at his old high school -- didn't appeal to me, when I was trying my best to get out of my home town. I usually watched Chips instead.
I haven't seen enough episodes to determine if there was any significant gay content, but the closing bits always involved Kotter in bed with his wife, doing comedy schtick ("Hey, Julie, did I ever tell you about my Uncle Eddie?"). A man who uses standup comedy to stall for time when his wife wants to have sex -- sounds gay-vague to me.
The plotlines and catchphrases became part of the zeitgeist. John Travolta, who played greaser Vinnie Barbarino, became a big star, thanks to some good movie roles (like Grease in 1978), and the strategic placement of beefcake shots.
But I liked Robert Hegyes as the Puerto Rican Jewish Juan Epstein: an Afro, a hairy chest, sleeveless shirts that displayed firm biceps, and a con-artist grin. He specialized in forged notes from home: "Dear Mr. Kotter, please excuse Epstein today. He's sick. Signed, Epstein's Mother."
And there was a lot to be said for Horshack's quiet lunacy.