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RIP, Ron Palillo

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 14, 2012

TV's Arnold Horshack has died. Brief story here. I interviewed Palillo in 1997, and here's the story:

It took close to 20 years, therapy and a change of coasts, but Ron Palillo has finally made peace with Arnold Horshack.

Palillo played the sweathog Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter, the 1975-79 ABC series about high school teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) and his band of underachieving students -- especially Horshack, Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes**), Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) and Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta).

The series was a big hit its first two seasons and put Travolta on the fast track to Saturday Night Fever and movie stardom.

Each of the young characters had memorable phrases and attitudes, none more so than Horshack, with a voice that ranged from a nasal whine to a high-pitched squeal, a much-used cry of "Oooooh, ooh," when he knew the answer to a classroom question, and the look of a benign simpleton.*

They were memorable enough that Palillo, Hegyes and Jacobs reprise their Kotter roles as guest stars on NBC comedy Mr. Rhodes on Monday night. The sweathogs offer advice to one of the young prep-school students on Rhodes as he prepares to run away. (Teacher Tom Rhodes is also counseled by the spirit of Gabe Kotter, played by John Kassir.) Palillo was pleased by the return.

"I didn't know if the audience was going to remember us, but as soon as I popped up, the audience went wild," he said in a recent telephone interview from his New York City home. "It was nonstop laughing and nonstop applause, and a three-minute scene ended up being six or seven minutes."

He said he would work again with the Kotter co-stars "in a second. And there is a lot of jabber about putting us in a show. ... There is a tape of the (Mr. Rhodes) show floating around executive offices."

Even as he enjoys the new attention, Palillo has not forgotten the hard years after Kotter when he could not get work in Hollywood because "everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack."

Although many actors have trouble maintaining success -- Palillo said that all of the sweathog players, Travolta included, hit career bumps -- the struggle was devastating to Palillo.

"After a while I began to think I was my own worst enemy," he said. "You know how a dog can smell fear? I think producers could smell desperation on me. ...

"At its worst," he said, "I would not leave my house. I wasn't necessarily agoraphobic, I just didn't want to go out. I was in a huge depression, and it took me four years to realize what was going on."

Finally, with the help of a psychiatrist, he began to turn things around. A big step came six years ago, when he left Los Angeles for New York City and found that Horshack had not followed him.

"As soon as I got back here I went right back to work," he said. "I played Mozart in Amadeus. I did a year on One Life to Live. I played Nathan Detroit, Truman Capote. I'm in the middle of negotiating to direct a Broadway musical. I've been teaching at the University of Connecticut, and I have a new book -- A Gift for the Contessa -- that I did the illustrations for. A lot of really good things have happened."

With time and regular work, he was finally ready to revisit Horshack.  The Kotter cast has kept in touch, and he reunited with Hegyes and Jacobs for a parody of Travolta's Pulp Fiction at the MTV Movie Awards.

Last season, he did three episodes of Ellen as himself, who had a romance with Ellen's friend Audrey (Cleveland Heights native Clea Lewis). Regularly referred to as "Ron Palillo, TV's Horshack," by Audrey, Palillo was less concerned about that than about saying lines he'd never utter in real life.

"That 'Oh, my darling, Audrey,' sort of thing," he said. "It was much more difficult than playing Horshack."

Then along came Mr. Rhodes. "My first thought was, 'Oh, God, no,' " Palillo said. "Then, 'I don't think this will do me any harm.' "

(*Frank Caliendo tweeted that Horshack was "one of the first impressions I ever did as a kid.")

(**Hegyes died in January 2012.)

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