Raise your hand and shout “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” if you loved the antics of remedial high school student Arnold Dingfelder Horshack on the late 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
But for Ron Palillo, who died of a heart attack in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., this morning at age 63, playing Horshack wasn’t as much fun as it looked. Though the role brought him fame, it left him feeling a bit frustrated. Palillo had started out as a stage actor, playing everything from Shakespeare to Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, and Kotter didn’t give him much artistic stretching room. He tried to console himself with the thought that “if you act with your heart and use techniques and style that have been taught to you, then I guess no matter how trivial the show is . . . there’s some approach toward art.”
After Kotter ended its four-year run in 1979, Palillo struggled. For years, according to a 1992 profile in People magazine, severe depression and agoraphobia made it difficult for him to even leave his home. After a psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants that helped him to regain control of his life, he began acting on the stage again in New York and had a surgical nose-job that left him looking little like the character he’d played on TV. He had a few forgettable horror-movie roles, and actually fought an actor from Saved by the Bell on the reality show Celebrity Boxing 2.
In an ironic twist, Palillo, who’d played a high-school student on TV, eventually found a fulfilling new career as a high-school teacher. In recent years, he worked at G-Star School of the Arts, a charter school in West Palm Beach, where teenage pupils knew him as the white-haired drama teacher who guided them dutifully through readings of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, pausing periodically to explain historical references that left them puzzled, and to remind them to project as if they were performing in a 500-seat Broadway theater, not a classroom.
Even so, as he told a reporter for the Palm Beach Post in 2009: “I wouldn’t teach Arnold Horshack. He was the smartest kid in school, but he opted to become liked rather than being what he was capable of. The Sweathogs were underachievers. These kids at G-Star aren’t underachievers. They want to be here.”