who played Juan Epstein, the Sweathog voted Most Likely to Take a Life, on the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter,” died on Thursday in Edison, N.J. He was 60.
The cause was cardiac arrest, a spokesman for John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, where Mr. Hegyes was pronounced dead, told Reuters.
Broadcast on ABC from 1975 to 1979, “Welcome Back, Kotter” starred Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter, who returns to teach at his gritty alma mater, the fictional James Buchanan High in Brooklyn. The theme song, written and sung by John Sebastian, was a No. 1 hit in 1976.
Besides Mr. Hegyes (pronounced Hedges), the Bensonhurst irregulars in Kotter’s care, collectively known as the Sweathogs, included John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Freddie Washington. Of the four, only Mr. Travolta went on to become a bankable movie star.
Epstein, half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, was known for his insouciant slouch, shirt open to the navel and an often immense Afro, capacious even by ’70s standards. As portrayed by Mr. Hegyes, the character was equal parts “West Side Story” tough and Sergeant Bilko trickster. (Mr. Hegyes said he modeled Epstein on Chico Marx.)
Absence-excuse notes were among Epstein’s specialties, though the fact that they were invariably signed “Epstein’s Mother” tended to tip his hand.
In the 1980s Mr. Hegyes had a recurring role as Detective Manny Esposito on the CBS crime drama “Cagney & Lacey.”
The son of a Hungarian-American father and an Italian-American mother, Robert Hegyes was born in 1951 in Perth Amboy, N.J. He earned a bachelor’s degree in speech, theater and dance from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in Glassboro, N.J., before moving to New York to start his acting career.
Mr. Hegyes had been cast in “Don’t Call Back,” a short-lived Broadway drama starring Arlene Francis and directed by Len Cariou, when he auditioned for “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He originally read for the role of the monosyllabic Barbarino but was ultimately hired to play Epstein.
Mr. Hegyes, who lived most recently in Metuchen, N.J., was married and divorced several times. Information on survivors could not be confirmed.
In later years he acted in regional theater and had guest roles on shows including “CHiPs,” “L.A. Heat” and “Diagnosis Murder.”
With fitting symmetry, Mr. Hegyes also taught for several years at Venice High School in California. As he told interviewers afterward, he had a reputation for accepting no absence excuses of any kind.
- May, 07, 1951
- Perth Amboy, New Jersey
- January, 26, 2012
- Edison, New Jersey
Cause of Death
- Heart attack
- Hillside Cemetery
- Westford, Massachusetts