Bummer, Robert Hegyes died yesterday of a heart attack. He was only 60 years old! That’s way too young to be dying. Hell, I’m 60! Definitely kinda scary! Yeah, Bob was actually a pretty funny guy back in the day, he used to really crack me up. Together with his three buddies they made quite a team.
What? You don’t know who he is? That probably because you knew him as ‘Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein’ or simply ‘Epstein’ on the old “Welcome Back Kotter” television show. Remember?
Rob was a ‘Sweat Hogs’. One of a group of four students who hung around together at good old James Buchanan High in Brooklyn.The four of them were all in Mr. Kotter’s remediation class. Rob played the pint sized Juan Epstein a Puerto Rican Jew with big hair and a tough guy swagger. He talked the talk and was always itching for a fight. He seemed to always have a handwritten note from his mom handy, excusing him from this, that or the other. With hand raised he’d shout from the rear of the class “I have a note!” Kotter would take it and read it aloud to the class. It was pretty obvious that Juan had written the note himself and it was always signed “Epstein’s Mother.” Uh huh, now you remember.
Yeah I used to love that show. It premiered back in 1975 on channel 7. I was only six years out of high school then and the show brought back some good memories. Much of the show took place in Kotter’s classroom. He was a Buchanan High alumni who became a teacher and came back to work at his old high school in hopes of making a difference. Funny how most teachers enter the profession for just that reason. Yeah, we go into the classroom highly charged and full of ideas on how we’re going to change things and make them better for students, only to see our hopes shattered by a broken, archaic educational system.
Kotter came back and was placed in a remediation classroom full of jokers and wise guys. Still he tried his best to provide them a quality education, which is actually a pretty realistic view of what teachers do, at least until they get fed up and burn out. The show left the air before Mr. Kotter had a chance to burn out. Actually It probably would have taken a lot for that to happen. Kotter had an affinity for the Sweat Hogs. That was his high school and he’d been in the same type of remediation classes he was teaching. Besides he was also a founding member of the Sweat Hogs. Yeah he really cared for those kids.
It was quite a show. You may remember that a pre Saturday Night Fever John Travolta was also one of the ‘Sweat Hogs, good old Vinnie Barbarino, a real stooge. His “Up your nose with a rubber hose” was one of my favorite lines. There was also Freddie ‘Boom Boom” Washington and the “ooh, ooh, ooh,” whinny Arnold Horshack who was the clown of the group. Actually now that I think about it, all four of them were classroom clowns but Arnold had a special gift. Of the four only Travolta went on to bigger and better things in acting. Yeah he really took off for awhile with “Saturday Night Fever”, The two “Grease,” films and “Urban Cowboy” but then he had a series of real flops. In the mid nineties he started a comeback that began with Pulp Fiction and continues today. Although Travolta was the only one of the four to hit the big time, the four remained friends and Travolta is godfather to Hegyes’ children.
The same cannot be said for the other three. They all went on to do some minor or recurring roles on TV and some film work, but never came close to Travolta’s level of success. I didn’t even know the real names of these three actors and still wouldn’t know Epstein’s if he hadn’t just died. I was surprised to learn that Heyges went on to finish school and was an adjunct instructor at Brooks College in Long Beach where he taught essay writing and public speaking. He also held a California Certified Secondary Education credential. I also read that Horshack is a teacher.
I guess it shouldn’t really surprise me, after all those Sweat Hogs had a great teacher. Mr. Kotter was inspirational. He believed in them and taught them how to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams. Even though it was just a sit-com, they must have got something out of it. Odd that in real life they would choose to follow in the footsteps of their fictional teacher. I bet Robert was a great teacher. Thanks for all the laughs Epstein. Godspeed…. See you on the other side…