Friday, January 27, 2012

Rant #663: Sweathog Memorial

As a teenager, I really enjoyed ABC's "Welcome Back Kotter."

The show was about a class of remedial students known as "The Sweathogs," who were perpetual students in their high school.

Then one day they get a new teacher, Mr. Kotter, and all of a sudden, while they didn't become good students, they become at least students who cared--about their teacher, if nothing else.

The show was about as old fashioned as could be--one wonders what today's TV would do with such a show--but it was a hit.

John Travolta came out of that show, as did Gabriel Kaplan, as did Robert Hegyes.

Hegyes, who played Juan Epstein on the hit show, died yesterday. He was just 60 years old.

The actor, born in New Jersey, did many other things in show business. Right after "Kotter," people kind of forget that he was a regular on "Cagney and Lacey."

But in my mind, he will always be Juan Epstein, the Jewish/Puerto Rican member of those Sweathogs.

The show was probably the first to openly show kids who weren't brains or even average students. In today's world, they would probably be labeled as Special Ed kids, but back then, that monicker meant something much different than it means today.

Juan Epstein was the real comedian of the bunch, and he even looked a bit like Harpo Marx, but with a Latin accent.

Hegyes played the role to perfection. In real life, he was a mix of Hungarian and Italian, but his looks lent him to a role like this.

The Sweathogs' comic hijinks made Travolta a star, and the others became kind of his, and Kaplan's, support act.

But Hegyes' character never wavered. To me, he was the true star of the show. Maybe I gravitated to him because his character was openly Jewish--unlike Kotter, who was Jewish but wasn't very open about it--and that endeared the Epstein character to me, since so few openly Jewish characters were on TV then, and for that matter, now.

He had been in ill health for a long time, but when he appeared on the TVLand awards a year ago, there was talk of a "Kotter" reunion show, and Travolta was probably going to participate.

You just know Hegyes would have been there with bells on.

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