Robert Hegyes, best known for playing the diminutive tough guy Epstein on Welcome Back Kotter, has died of a heart attack, according to the Associated Press. Hegyes was 60.
A veteran of children’s theater who took comic inspiration from Chico Marx (whom he once played in a touring show), Hegyes was starring on Broadway when he landed the role in Kotter. Hegyes often claimed that it was his suggestion that the Sweathogs should model themselves after the wiseguy antics of the Marx Brothers, essentially making them class clowns rather than juvenile delinquents. And although the proud, fierce Epstein was supposedly the roughest of the bunch—even being voted “Most Likely To Take A Life” by the rest of the class—Hegyes certainly imbued his character with that Marx Bros. sense of mischief.
Some of that was purely physical: Epstein’s exaggerated swagger was the punchline to Hegyes’ height, and at least 20 percent of that height was hair. But there was definitely some of the Marx Bros.’ anarchic zaniness in Epstein’s most famous routine, which saw his shirking every assignment with “I got a note!”—followed by Hegyes mouthing along word for word as the note was read aloud, finally reaching the kicker of being signed “Epstein’s mother.”
(Sadly, videos of those scenes don't seem to exist on YouTube, but here's a pretty good example of what Hegyes brought to the show.)
Hegyes remained with Kotter through all four seasons, eventually graduating to directing an episode when he was just 25. And he continued to have a productive career outside the halls of James Buchanan High, guest starring on series like The Streets Of San Francisco, The Love Boat, and CHiPs, before landing another recurring role on ’80s cop drama Cagney And Lacey in its sixth season.
As the flashy, perpetually scheming Detective Manny Esposito, Hegyes was brought in as a foil to Paul Mantee’s uptight veteran officer (and also to help lighten the mood after the untimely death of Dan Shor’s character from the previous season). Hegyes recounts on his website that he landed the part after making a serious impression at an audition in which he accidentally spit in the casting director’s face. (And hey, if you’re interested, he’s also got a couple of good stories about crashing a concert by his cousin, Jon Bon Jovi, and meeting “Kotter freak” Ronald Reagan.)
After Cagney, Hegyes’ TV appearances usually tended to play off of Kotter nostalgia, including his cameo as one of the Garrelli Brothers on NewsRadio, briefly subbing for Diedrich Bader on The Drew Carey Show’s gimmicky April Fool’s Day episode, and turning up on the Saturday Night Live hosted by noted Kotter fan Quentin Tarantino. He was also a frequent guest on game shows such as Match Game, The $25,000 Pyramid, and Battle Of The Network Stars, as well as variety series like The Donny And Marie Show.
On the feature side, Hegyes had roles in films such as Just Tell Me You Love Me, Underground Aces, Purpose, and Bob Roberts, and also directed 1984’s E. Nick: A Legend In His Own Mind. His final on-screen appearance was 2002’s Hip, Edgy, Sexy, Cool, although he continued to teach acting and writing regularly, and was always game to talk Kotter, most recently reuniting with the surviving cast members (including John Travolta) for last year’s TV Land Awards.
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