A theater-trained actor with a strong stage background, Ron Palillo was forever remembered as the charming goofball Arnold Horshack, one of the "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79) "Sweathogs. " The show and its characters became an integral part of pop culture zeitgeist, inspiring a lucrative line of merchandise and a mania to imitate the beloved characters' catchphrases, including Palillo's distinctive Horshack mannerisms. As with many actors who create characters so popular they are eventually eclipsed by them, Palillo spent the rest of his career attempting to escape Horshack's shadow with little success in genre projects like "Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI" (1986), a slew of voiceover roles and even plastic surgery. He poked fun at his career woes with a fun recurring role as himself on "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98) and a bout with "Saved by the Bell" star Dustin Diamond - seen by many as his successor of sorts - who gave him two black eyes on the exploitative "Celebrity Boxing" (Fox, 2002). Instead, Palillo turned his focus to stage work, teaching drama and illustrating children's books, living quietly in Florida with his partner until his death from a heart attack on Aug. 14, 2012. Although he chafed at times under the weight of being reduced to a pop culture punchline, Ron Palillo created a character who still resonated with audiences decades later - a testament to the chops, tenacity and likability of the actor who made it all possible.
Born April 2, 1949 in Cheshire, CT, Ron Palillo grew up wanting to be an actor. He gained valuable stage experience in local theatrical productions as a teenager and went on to graduate from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he graduated with a degree in drama. Palillo furthered his training with lengthy additional stints in a Shakespearean touring company, a Miami-based troupe and eventually, work in off-Broadway productions, including playing a mentally challenged youth in the hit play "Hot I Baltimore" which Norman Lear would adapt for television (ABC, 1975). Although he did not appear in the adaptation, Palillo appeared on the radar of casting directors, who tapped him for his star-making role.
As sweet as he was goofy, Palillo created the annoying-yet-endearing class clown Arnold Horshack, one of the good-hearted, underachieving Sweathogs trusted to the care of wisecracking teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) on the sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79). Rooted heavily in stand-up comic Kaplan's memories of his own high school experiences, the series became a pop cultural phenomenon, spawning a slew of tie-in merchandise and making its actors into stars of the era. Although John Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino was the ultimate breakout character, Palillo was the show's wackiest comedic weapon, inspiring viewers to imitate his trademark mannerisms, including a hyena laugh and his desperate, hand-raising call of "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Mr. Kotter!" when he wanted to be called on in class.
Becoming so closely associated with an of-the-moment character was always a double-edged sword for any actor, and Palillo benefited from a boosted profile but also found the shadow of Horshack difficult to escape. After "Kotter" ended, Palillo booked guest spots on popular shows like "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985), "CHiPs" (NBC, 1977-1983) and "The A-Team" (NBC, 1983-87) as well as voicing the titular toy on the animated series "Rubik, the Amazing Cube" (ABC, 1983-84). Despite his initial success, Palillo found it nearly impossible to avoid typecasting, and he had to settle for small parts in genre projects like "Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI" (1986) and the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle "Snake Eater" (1989) and "Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster" (1989).
Working most steadily in voiceover work, Palillo recurred as a heightened version of himself on "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98), where he lamented the long shadow of Horshack. Off-screen the actor was so desperate to achieve distance between himself and the character that he underwent plastic surgery. After a painfully embarrassing televised bout on "Celebrity Boxing" (Fox, 2002), where he was visibly bruised by Dustin Diamond - whose breakout character of Screech on "Saved by the Bell" (NBC, 1989-1993) owed much to Horshack - Palillo turned his focus to teaching drama at his alma mater, appearing in theatrical productions and illustrating children's books. Eventually, Palillo moved to Florida, where he taught acting and lived quietly with his partner, accepting the occasional role in lower-profile screen projects. He died of a heart attack on Aug. 14, 2012 - ironically only eight months after the death of fellow Sweathog Robert Hegyes, a.k.a. Juan Epstein. Although, decades later, he was still best known for his role as Arnold Horshack, Ron Palillo left behind a legacy as a beloved pop cultural icon of the 1970s whose most famous character lived on forever.
By Jonathan Riggs