Robert Hegyes, the actor best known for playing Jewish Puerto Rican high schooler Juan Epstein on the 1970s television sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, died this week. He was 60.
It’s a sad day for fans of classic TV sitcoms: Robert Hegyes, the actor best known for playing Jewish Puerto Rican student Juan Epstein on the 1970s comedy Welcome Back, Kotter, has died.
He was 60.
Hegyes passed away after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey on Thursday. Emergency personnel were called to the star’s home around 9 a.m. and arrived to find him complaining of chest pains, according to Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper.
Hegyes was transported to John F. Kennedy Medical Center in nearby Edison, New Jersey, where he was pronounced dead.
Hegyes had been in declining health for years before his death, according to his brother. Mark Hegyes told reporters that Robert suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago and never quite regained his strength after the ordeal.
Welcome Back, Kotter ran on ABC for five seasons. For those not in-the-know, the show revolved around an inner-city high school teacher, Mr. Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan), who returned to his Brooklyn alma mater, James Buchanan High to teach a new generation of underachieving misfits, nicknamed the “Sweathogs.” As a former “Sweathog” himself, Kotter used his own life experiences to get through to the misunderstood group.
Hegyes, a Rowan University graduate, was appearing on Broadway in 1975 when he auditioned for what would become his signature role. A running gag on the show involved Epstein bringing in obviously fake notes excusing him from class, signed by “Epstein’s Mother.”
Hegyes also did spot-on impersonations of Harpo and Chico Marx during his time on the sitcom, which helped launch the film career of fellow “Sweathog” John Travolta (Vinnie Barbarino). Off screen, Hegyes was inspired by Chico Marx, who he once played in a touring production of a show about the Marx Bros.
After Kotter left the air in 1979, Hegyes enjoyed a regular role on Cagney & Lacey. He acted sporadically after the CBS police drama ended in 1988, appearing in episodes of The Drew Carey Show and Diagnosis Murder.
The appeal of Kotter has transcended generations. The sitcom was the inspiration behind the short-lived ABC venture Miss Guided in 2008.
The “Sweathogs” of Kotter, which also included Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington) and Ron Palillo (Arnold Horshack), came together for a 35th anniversary reunion at the Ninth Annual TV Land Awards last summer. Rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube has signed on to appear in a film adaptation of the hit show, which is currently in pre-production.