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Robert Hegyes

January 28, 2012

Welcome Back, Kotter debuted in 1975 and ran through 1979, the sweet spot of my childhood. It was my favorite show. I loved all the Sweathogs, Epstein most of all. He had a funny swagger, a giant afro, a maniacal look in his eyes, a (Chico) Marxian air of absurd careening pomposity-leveling chaos. He was half-Jewish, just like me, but unlike me he was proud of whatever parts made up all of him. I’ll stop there—I don’t want this to become some kind of serious sensitive self-exploration. Welcome Back, Kotter was no more and no less than exactly my idea of fun back when I was just becoming a member of the human race, and Juan Epstein was the heart and soul of the fun.

The man behind Juan Epstein, Robert Hegyes, died this past Thursday. I spent some hours yesterday and today poking around his website, where he has written several thoughtful and interesting notes about his life and about the show that made him famous. The site is organized in a somewhat unorthodox way, but be sure to check out the Kotter show section (start at this link and then click through to other pages with the “next” button at the bottom of the page). The highlight of that series of pages, at least for this constant searcher on the seas of memorabilia, is a scanned version of the feature on Hegyes, in its entirety, from Dynamite magazine. The only magazine that eclipsed Dynamite for me back in those days was Mad Magazine. On another page on Hegyes’ site I discovered that he, like me, had been raised on Mad:

I grew up reading Mad Magazine and laughing my ass off. Alfred E. Neuman for President, was my motto. I still think he could beat George W. Bush to this day. One day someone walked in and said, “Hey look, you guys are on the cover of Mad Magazine.” Forget TV Guide, People, and the National Enquirer. I knew I had made it.

In another section of the site, Hegyes writes with great warmth and humility of a chance meeting with George Harrison. If anyone has ever met a hero, they’ll recognize Hegyes’ internal monologue as he walked away from his brief moment with the Beatle. If I’d ever met the man behind Juan Epstein, I would have been reeling in the exact same way:

“I thought of a hundred things I wanted to say, but nothing I could have said was more important than, thank you.”

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3 comments

  1. Josh – Thank you so much for this piece. I had not heard of Robert Hegyes death and was a bit shocked to hear of it through Cardboard Gods this morning. Like you, I was raised on Welcome Back Kotter and Mad Magazine. Those years you mention were also the same sweet spot of my own youth. Welcome Back Kotter was the first sitcom I can remember being mine, not something I watched because of my mother, but a show I felt was written for me and discovered by me. It was must-see TV before the phrase was invented and I remember that my world would stop when the show’s theme song kicked in. I’ve not given Kotter much of a thought over the years, and that’s a shame, as it was so big a part of the zeitgeist and, I think, I big part of me. Here was a show whose jokes I got and whose characters I could relate to. Though I wasn’t quite in High School at the time, I wanted to be and was close enough to identify with the likes of Horshak and Epstein. I could not identify with Barbarino, even though my own name is Vinny. I was a skinny kid, a little kid, a kid who was weird and did not fit in. But I yearned for a Barbarino I could hang around. Now that I look back on it, I realize that it was Epstein I most admired. He, like all the sweathogs, was always his true and authentic self. As sappy as it may sound, he was a role model, they all were. Those fictional kids did not surrender their identities to the establishment and they didn’t back down from a fight. I loved that show, and am saddened by the news of Hegyes’ passing at such a young age. Long love Epstein.


  2. loved epstein-the kotter character.
    his unique puerto rican/jewish mix and how the writer of the show
    brought that out.
    thanks for posting the links josh
    and as always, thanks for your insights.


  3. I still have all my Dynamite mags from my childhood, over 50 or so. Not sure why or how.



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