Robert HegyesJanuary 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.”