By Staff and Wire Reports
Services for Ron Palillo, best known as mouthy classroom goofball Arnold Horshack on the 1970s TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” were on Aug. 22 at St. Patrick’s Church in Palm Beach Gardens.
He died Aug. 14 at his home in Palm Beach Gardens after an apparent heart attack. He had not been ill or hospitalized, those close to him said.
Mr. Palillo, who was 63, had been teaching acting classes to 9-12 grade students at G-Star School of the Arts in Palm Springs for about three years.
“His students admired and respected him,” said principal Kim Collins, who worked with Mr. Palillo since he joined the staff. “He really wanted what was best for them and wanted to share his craft with them, because he was so good at it — not that he would say that. He was very humble.”
Mr. 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 lovable wiseguys known as the Sweathogs. Horshack was the nasal teen who yelped, “Oooh, ooh,” and shot his hand skyward whenever Kotter posed a question.
The show’s cast included a young John Travolta as ladies’ man Vinnie Barbarino; Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs played the always cool Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington; and Robert Hegyes played tough Jewish Puerto Rican wheeler-dealer Juan (Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos) Epstein. Hegyes died in January from an apparent heart attack at 60.
The show was a ratings success and pop-culture phenomenon, injecting smart-aleck phrases such as “Up your nose with a rubber hose” into the mainstream and propelling Travolta to stardom. But the series only lasted as long as a high school education and its end, for Mr. Palillo, brought professional 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.
Born April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Conn., Ronald Paolillo eventually dropped the first “o’’ from his surname. His father died of lung cancer when Mr. Palillo was 10 and he developed a stutter. His mother thought that getting him involved in local theater 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 GabeKaplan, 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 e-mail to the Associated Press.
In a 2009 newspaper interview, Mr. Palillo said he always felt very at home in West Palm Beach unlike New York.
“People go out of their way for you in West Palm Beach. They don’t do that in New York,” he said then.
Greg Hauptner, founder and CEO of G-Star, said, “He was the kind of guy that you met and immediately made you feel really good.”
Survivors include his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm, a retired actor, sister Ann, who lives in Connecticut, and brothers Richard and Bobby, of Florida.