Friday, August 17, 2012

Remembering Welcome Back Kotter

I have to admit this --Welcome Back Kotter was never one of my favorite series.
But this week's sad news of the death of co-star Ron Palillo at 63 from a heart attack hit me real hard.
And then I had to realize WBK was a long, long time ago.
American TV was so much more fun back then. And simple.
WBK was another reworking of the dumb school class theme that went right back to Our Miss Brooks.
It starred Gabe Kaplan as teacher Gabe Kotter who returned to his old Brooklyn high school where he had graduated a decade before. His devoted wife was played by Marcia Strassman.
Gabe's class was composed of the dumbest, funniest kids in the school, the so-called "sweat hogs"
I remember watching the pilot along with other visiting TV critics in June 1975 at L.A.'s Century Plaza hotel. The consensus was this: the show stank.
And there was a furious interview session with the creators and stars which resulted in some fine tuning of the humor and a switch away from it becoming a funny version of Blackboard Jungle.
Next day the critics went on the set and finally got to interview the cast  individually at a lavish ABC party.
Third ranked ABC was then riding the crest of a ratings wave with such dumb but essential fare as  Happy Days (which preceded WBK Tuesdays at 8), Barney Miller, Streets Of San Francisco, Baretta, Starsky And Hutch and Six Million Dollar Man.
ABC fare was rough hewn and deliberately skewered to the teenagers who were being ignored by upscale CBS and NBC.
I remember at the cast party I was told by the veteran ABC publicist  Tom Mackin that the big, emerging star was going to be heartthrob Robert Hegyes who played Juan Epstein.
"No, you're wrong," I simply told him, "It's that guy over there." And I pointed to the equally unknown John Travolta cast as Vinnie Barbarino.
I could see it, ABC could not. And Travolta within a few years emerged as a major movie star.
I could see it then but ABC could not.
Palillo played Horschack who had the most wonderfully braying voice. But he had typed himself with his bravura interpretation and after the series' end four years later had trouble getting work.
For most of TV's instant new stars there is no second act.
But I bumped into Hegyes many years later when I was hanging out with old pal Al Waxman on the set of Cagney And Lacey.
It was 1986 and I found myself talking to Hegyes who was nicely cast on the cop series as Det. Manny Esposito.
It had been seven years since WBK had expired and after some lean times Hegyes told me he wanted to try re-climbing the ladder to TV stardom.
But Hegyes was typecast all over again and the pickings were slim. He finally wound up teaching at Venice High School. He died of an apparent heart attack, aged 60, in January of this year.
I never met Palillo again after the 1979 interview but in subsequent news stories he said he felt marginalized and type cast.
Like Hegyes he taught high school --in West Palm Beach and was prepping to return to classes in the fall when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
And Travolta vaulted to movie stardom based on such runaway movie hits as Saturday Night Live and Grease. Just as I fearlessly predicted that June night in 1979.

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