I often joke that I went to "Saturday Night Fever High." In the mid-70's, one of TV's hottest sitcoms was "Welcome Back, Kotter" about a teacher (comedian Gabe Kaplan) who comes back to teach remedial ed in the Brooklyn high school from which he'd graduated. The remedial students he taught were referred to as the 'Sweat Hogs.' Their bad-attitudes and hijinks were source of most of the show's plots. The kids did something bad (though not really, especially by today's standards) and Mr. Kotter would teach them a valuable life-lesson around what they had done.
And while John Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino was the breakout character, I was always much more attracted to Robert Heyges' Juan Epstein, a Puerto Rican Jew who always managed to have a forged note signed 'Epstein's Mother.' Of course, I've always found darker-skinned, compact, hirsute men attractive. Heyges, at the time in his mid-20s, certainly filled the bill. While Travolta may have gone on to become a super star, thanks in part to his turns in films such as Carrie; Saturday Night Fever; Grease; Face-Off; Pulp Fiction and Hairspray, Heyges continued to work in TV and film (including a gig on "Cagney and Lacey") until his official retirement in 2002.
Heyges passed away today at the far-too-young age of 60, of an apparent heart-attack. And while officially retired, he was still reportedly involved in promoting local arts projects in his native New Jersey.
Nothing makes Uncle P feel older than hearing news like this. While it only ran for four seasons on ABC, "Welcome Back, Kotter" still holds a place in my heart as one the shows that defined my own high school experience. And Heyges' Epstein will always hold a place in my heart as one of my teenage crushes.
With his gap-toothed grin, crazy afro and very hairy chest, Hegyes managed to push all the right buttons with me. Of course, with the right wig, I can see D playing the part of Epstein in a stage musical based on the show. And while I'm already too old to play Kotter, I might get away with playing Principal Woodman.
RIP, Robert Heyges. Another part of my youth slips away... sigh...