Ron Palillo, best known as mouthy classroom goofball Arnold Horshack on the 1970s TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, died at his Palm Beach Gardens home early this morning, according to Stacy Sacco, Palillo’s friend.
Sacco said Palillo passed away suddenly at 4:30 a.m.
He was 63.
“He just couldn’t have been more fun and intelligent or talented. He was an amazing human being,” said Sacco of Palm Beach Gardens, who met Palillo 20 years ago when he was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom in Los Angeles, on which Sacco was a script supervisor.
“I had been a fan. We all knew who he was. He was a shining star,” Sacco said.
Palillo had been teaching acting classes at G-Star School of the Arts, a charter school in Palm Springs, for about three years.
Sacco said that no cause of death has been determined, but that Palillo had not been ill or in the hospital. Palillo was a Connecticut native who lived in New York for about 40 years before teaching at G-Star.
Palillo attended the University of Connecticut and had lectured in colleges and high schools all over the country before coming to Palm Beach County.
“From the moment I heard about G-Star … it sounded like everything I wanted as a student when I went to high school,” Palillo told The Palm Beach Post in 2009.
“To have this when I was a kid would’ve been astonishing and I knew I wanted to be part of it.”
“He was the greatest guy. He could have come in with an ego and he didn’t,” Greg Hauptner, founder and CEO of G-Star Academy, said today. “He was appreciative of working with the kids, and the kids love him.”
Palillo taught acting for film and camera.
“He was a very gentle gentleman,” Hauptner said. “He knew how to work with the kids and how to get the best out of them.
“He was the kind of guy that you met and immediately made you feel really good.”
Hauptner said when Palillo first came to G-Star, he taught ninth grade.
“These were 13-, 14-year-old kids, and they didn’t know Welcome Back Kotter,” Hauptner said.
“The kids went back and watched just about every episode.
“It drove him crazy, but he loved every minute of it.”
Palillo played Horshack on the popular sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. The show also starred Gabe Kaplan and a young John Travolta. It originally aired on ABC and ran from 1975-79.
The show focused on Kaplan’s character Gabe Kotter, who returned to his high school in Brooklyn — the fictional James Buchanan High — to teach a remedial class to which he once belonged, according to tv.com.
The main group of students were known as the Sweathogs, an unruly group who always got in trouble. Palillo played the sheepish Arnold Dingfelder Horshack, who would often yell “Ooh! Ooh, ooh!” when he thought he knew the answer to a question.
The cast also included Travolta, who played lady’s man Vinnie Barbarino, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the always cool Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington and Robert Hegyes, who played the tough Jewish Puerto Rican wheeler-dealer Juan (Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos) Epstein, according to tv.com.
The show was based on Kaplan’s own high school experiences with remedial education and a teacher who cared dearly for her students, according to tv.com.
Palillo told the Post in 2009 he loved Palm Beach County, having served as artistic director for the Cuillo Center for the Arts, where he directed and acted in A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline and The Phantom of the Opera.
“I’ve always felt very at home here,” Palillo once said. “People go out of their way for you in West Palm Beach. They don’t do that in New York.”
Palillo told his G-Star students in 2009 that they should project as if they’re performing at a 500-seat Broadway theater and not inside a cramped high school classroom. He also stressed the importance of getting his students comfortable with telling unrehearsed stories.
“I want them to get the feeling of what it’s like to be totally unprepared and to bond with each other in a way scientists think perhaps primitive man bonded by sitting around the campfire and eating a pterodactyl leg and saying, ‘I caught a brontosaurus this big last night,’” he said, laughing. “It also helps to create a good ensemble.”
Palillo said his fellow Kotter actors paid careful attention to their characters. “The writers asked us to write our characters’ autobiographies as our characters,” Palillo told the Post. “I wrote how Arnold’s mother had been married so many times and how he just wanted to be liked and how no one was going to read this autobiography he was writing. The writers used all of it.”
“He was just loved by everybody here,” said Hauptner, of G-Star. “He was a big part of our school. We’ll never forget him.
“The kids are going to miss him.”
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