'Welcome Back Kotter's' Ron Palillo Dies And Takes Part Of My Childhood With Him

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Ron Palillo -- who among other accomplishments in life brought overeager Sweat Hog Arnold Horshack to the small screen from 1975-1979 on Welcome Back Kotter -- died this week of an apparent heart attack in Florida, his agent said. He was 63. 

You know how celebrities die, and people say that part of their childhood went with them? 

That's so true for me in this case. 

I like television now, but as a kid in the 70s and early 80s, I was obsessed. I was a champion sitcom watcher, with alarming rerun viewing totals in an era of no cable and certainly no Nick at Night. Welcome Back Kotter was one of my favorite shows, and Horshack was the main reason why. 

I never caught the Vinne Barbarino bug, what can I say? 

I'm not saying it was great that I was a couch potato, I'm just saying it was true. I  lacked social confidence and besides that, I was already a voracious media consumer who liked to be home with my stories, on paper and on the screen, while I was making up my own.

There is a tendency to think that any time before the one we're in was simpler, but the shows of my youth definitely seem that way to me now. I love the more layered and complex dramas that I watch in the 2010s, although I take longer to commit and am more inclined to break up with a show -- citing boredom or better things to do--  than ever. Back then, it was solely about the characters, simple or caricaturish as they may have been. Every week, Arnold would shake his fist and yell at the kids in the diner on Happy Days while Fonzie said "Ayyyyy" and slid under this or that car. Every episode, Laverne would say "AWWWWWW, Poppppp," and Lenny and Squiggy would walk in with their idiot tandem "HELLO!" Mork was guaranteed to have that godforsaken conversation with Orson, while Jo and Blair had a fight about some other dumb thing over on the Facts of Life

And over in his grungy classroom, beleaguered Gabe Kotter walked in to his hell job of teaching some of the most benign delinquents ever devised by writers who I'm guessing never taught any, and heard stupid jokes and backtalk punctuated with endless "Mr. KAH-TAHHHHs."

You knew to wait for it, though. You knew that at some point in the 23 or so minutes, Horshack would ask a question. He had to, right? Who remembers what any of them were? He never knew the answer, anyway, and the question wasn't the point. The point was for AH.NOLD.HORE.SHACKKK to flip out with fake knowledge and a compulsive need for attention, throw his arm up and scream "OOOH! OOOOH! OOOHH!"

"Yes, Arnold?"

"I forgot." 

Cue laughter, and a strange, seductive sort of stability. We could all carry on until next week. 

Horshack wasn't stupid, though, as none of the Sweathogs were except for maybe Vinnie, although in classic pre-Joey Tribiani fashion he had the swagger to make up for it. In another world, another classroom, Arnold would have been a savant. But in this one, his brain took a back seat to his one important function: 

To ask the question. To laugh that ridiculous donkey laugh. To take on the role he landed in his high school's social hierarchy. 

Ron Palillo unsurprisingly struggled with typecasting as Horshack after Kotter's 1979 finale, and had trouble catching any other traction in the entertainment industry. 

Credit Image: © Burr Jerger/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

“Everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack. I resented Horshack for so many years,” he said. 

He later found roles on One Life to Live and guest-starred on other tv shows. In recent years, he taught at a West Palm Beach, Fla., charter high school, and in 2010 directed “The Lost Boy,” a musical he wrote based on the life of “Peter Pan” author J. M. Barrie. 

Ron Palillo is survived by his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm. 

Credit Image: © Rick Mackler/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

Contributing Editor Laurie White lives online at LaurieMedia.

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