OK, Welcome Back, Kotter wasn’t Yes, Minister. It wasn’t even The Odd Couple. But damn the cast looked like they were having fun — and they each carved out a goofy persona that, when thrown into the volatile mix of high school hijinx, unrequited love, and a frustrated comic of a homeroom teacher, delivered some explosive laughs.
Robert Hegyes, who played the Puerto Rican Jew Juan Epstein (and who was himself of Hungarian-Italian extract), was both Chico and Harpo to Gabe Kaplan’s Groucho. Overshadowed by John Travolta, who would go on to stupid-super-stardom, and even Ron Palillo, who looked like he was game for a small career as the perennial whiny next-door neighbor, a poorer man’s Rob Schneider, Hegyes never quite gained the career traction his talent warranted.
My high school friends and I used to repeat their routines in class, including turning our desks around 180 degrees when our math teacher came into the room. That may not sound like much to brag about in the way of rebellion, but this was a small, strict Lutheran parochial school, and so it was tantamount to Italianate chaos destroying the machine-like efficiency of a Teutonic institution of lower learning.
Vinnie (“What?”) Barbarino, Juan, Freddie “Boom Boom” (“Hi, there”) Washington, and Arnold (“Ooh! Ooh!”) Horshack would be labeled “special needs” today, with a touch of Asperger’s and a side of Prozac, but they were just adolescent mentalities trapped in post-adolescent bodies.
So, in honor of the late great Juan Epstein, here are a few moments from the show that taught us all to say: “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” (And oh yeah: Remind me to tell you the story of how I got roped into keeping a somewhat “tipsy” Ron Palillo from feeling up the guests at a “Where Are They Now?” party thrown by Biography Magazine back in 1998. I also got my picture taken with Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island — our arms around each other. Yeah, you heard me. This was before I met my wife, so it was OK. So take that you Ginger lovers…)