Actor-director Robert Hegyes rose to fame in the early 1970s as the conniving charmer Juan Epstein, one of the "Sweathogs" on the popular ABC sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter" (1975-78). With his generous grin and stratospheric shock of curly hair, Epstein was a natural clown, which was also an apt description for Hegyes, who had served as an actor and puppeteer in various children's theater and improvisational comedy groups prior to "Kotter." Like the rest of his castmates save for John Travolta, Hegyes maintained a steady if low profile in features and on television in later decades, with a stint on "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1981-88) being his most notable post-"Kotter" credit. He continued to reprise Epstein for nostalgic TV guest appearances and commercials well into the 21st century while enjoying a second career as a college educator. His death from a heart attack in 2012 was a sobering moment for viewers who spent their formative years in the 1970s with Juan Epstein and his education-adverse companions.
Born in Perth Amboy, NJ on May 7, 1951, he was the eldest of four children by his Hungarian-American father, Stephen Hegyes, and an Italian-American mother, Maria Cocozza. He was raised in the New Jersey borough of Metuchen, where he began acting as a student at Metuchen High School. Hegyes continued to pursue dramatics at Rowan University (formerly known as Glassboro State College), and after graduation, became a member of a Greenwich Village children's theater group that performed educational plays for young audiences. He later joined the NYC Children's Puppet Ensemble as a puppeteer and performed anti-war improvisational comedy with Jack LaRumpa's Flying Drum & Kazoo Band in Washington Square.
He made his off-Broadway debut in "Naomi Court" opposite Brad Davis shortly after graduating from Rowan, and soon moved to the Great White Way in "Don't Call Back," a drama starring Arlene Francis and directed by Tony winner Len Cariou. While appearing in the play, Hegyes auditioned for a new television comedy from producer James Komack - best known previously for "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," ABC, 1969-1972) - and won the part of Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein, a half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican member of the Sweathogs, a group of remedial students at the fictitious James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn. The series, called "Welcome Back, Kotter," starred comedian Gable Kaplan as a former student who returns to his alma mater to teach the Sweathogs, which also included a young John Travolta as the dim but likable Vinnie Barbarino. Hegyes' Epstein was initially portrayed as the toughest of the group, but concerns over the show glorifying juvenile delinquency forced the producers to soften their characterizations. His character soon hinged around a recurring device of excuse notes from his mother, all forged by Epstein himself; he also frequently delivered expert imitations of Chico or Harpo Marx when Kaplan's Kotter broke into his Groucho impersonation. The show also provided Hegyes with his first turn as director on a 1978 episode.
The rowdy interplay between Kotter and the Sweathogs helped to make the show a hit with young audiences during the series' first two seasons, but time slot changes and the departure of Travolta led to its demise during its fourth season in 1979. Like most of his "Kotter" co-stars, Hegyes found steady work in episodic television in the ensuing years, and returned to Chico Marx in the Los Angeles and national touring productions of An Evening with Groucho. After making his feature directorial debut with the low-budget comedy "E. Nick: A Legend in His Own Mind" (1984), he returned to series work on "Cagney and Lacey," where his streetwise Detective Manny Esposito clashed with his veteran partner (Paul Mantee). After "Cagney" left the air in 1988, Hegyes continued to provide guest turns on various series while reprising Epstein on various television shows, most notably in a sketch that envisioned "Kotter" as directed by Quentin Tarantino in a 1995 episode of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) hosted by Travolta, and later for a similar sketch on the "MTV Movie Awards" (MTV, 1992- ) that same year.
In later years, Hegyes balanced his acting career with scriptwriting and serving as artist-in-residence at Rowan University, where he taught a variety of media classes. He later taught English at Brooks College in Long Beach, CA while making regular appearances with many of his "Kotter" castmates at entertainment awards and in various television advertisements. His last appearance in this regard came in 2011 at the 9th annual TV Land Awards, where he accepted an award for the show's 35th anniversary. On Jan. 26, 2012, Hegyes suffered chest pains at his home in Metuchen, NJ. He was transported to a hospital, where he died of an apparent heart attack, saddening many Generation X fans who grew up watching Hegyes and his fellow Sweathogs wreak their unique form of havoc in the classroom.
By Paul Gaita