Robert Hegyes, the actor who played Juan Epstein on the seventies TV show Welcome Back Kotter, died last Thursday of cardiac arrest at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey. He was 60 years old.
The hit show, which took place in Bensonhurst and starred comedian Gabe Kaplan, paved the way for the career of costar John Travolta, who played Hegyes’ fellow sweathog Vinnie Barbarino on the show – and used the series as a launchpad to score the lead role in the movie Saturday Night Fever as disco-dancing neighborhood guy Tony Manero.
Hegyes wrote in a note on his website that he modeled the character of the scheming half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican Epstein on Chico Marx, noting that all the Marx Brothers were both “intellectuals” and “juvenile delinquents,” adding, “I could definitely relate.”
He continued to act after that show and “Cagney and Lacey,” appearing on “NewsRadio,” “Diagnosis Murder” and “The Drew Carey Show.”
He also appeared in the movie Bob Roberts opposite Tim Robbins, taught acting and wrote screenplays. He, along with almost all the original cast members of Welcome Back Kotter, reunited last year at the TV Land Awards to mark the show’s 35th anniversary.
Above is a clip of Hegyes and company taking on Buchanan High’s (a fictional stand-in for New Utrecht High School) Debate Team.