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'Welcome Back, Kotter' Star Ron Palillo Struggled to Land Other Roles & Died Working as a Teacher

Bettina Dizon
Jul 05, 2020
02:30 P.M.
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Ron Palillo was a stage actor before he appeared on the screen. Although his career didn't launch him into stardom, he was able to make a name for himself and eventually return to stage productions

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Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, on April 2, 1949, Ron Palillo began showing his incredible aptitude for acting from a very young age and made his debut in summer theater when he was 14 years old.

Palillo reportedly became involved in theater while he was in high school as a way to manage his stuttering, which eventually subsided and disappeared as the years went by. Although his Hollywood career did not launch him into stardom, he was able to make a name for himself in the industry.

A side-by-side photo of Ron Palillo during his younger years and during the 2009 Broadway Backwards at the American Airlines Theatre on February 9, 2009 in New York City. | Source: Getty Images

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THE EARLY DAYS OF HIS CAREER

After graduating from Cheshire High School, Palillo chased after his dream of becoming an actor by attending the University of Connecticut, where he majored in drama. After he graduated, Palillo auditioned in stage plays, where he was cast as an understudy in the Off-Broadway play "Hot L Baltimore."

The Lanford Wilson play became his mainstay for a year before the actor starred in the musical production, "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac." The play was a great success and aired on television, gaining Palillo more recognition.

He went on to appear in the plays "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Summer Brave," where he went on tour with his castmates. Soon enough, he chased greater heights and auditioned for roles on film and television.

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Ron Palillo at the Gotham Magazine Benefit For Rainforest Action Network at Lord & Taylor in New York City | Photo: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic via Getty Images

"WELCOME BACK KOTTER"

In 1975, Palillo was cast to portray the goofy high school underachiever Arnold Horshack in "Welcome Back, Kotter." The series ran from 1975 to 1979, following the life of a high school teacher assigned to a chaotic class of remedial students. Gabe Kaplan starred as the well-meaning teacher, Gabe Kotter.

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Students in the James Buchanan High School remedial class were known as the Sweathogs because the hot temperature of the top floor made them all sweat. Palillo was one of the students in that class alongside actors John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton- Jacobs, and Robert Hegyes.

Palillo's character was the most popular due to his weird yet naive nature. Although he was quite lazy, he was the most academically gifted member of the group and the only one who eventually managed to be promoted out of remedial academics class.

Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack in "Welcome Back, Kotter" | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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Aside from his joyful personality, Palillo's character was famous for his wheezing laugh, as well as his catchphrase, which was usually pronounced wrong: "Ooh Mista Kahta! Mista Kahta!"

Palillo never had any children and was survived by his longtime partner, Joseph Gramm.

According to Palillo, the character was largely inspired by the person he was while in high school and that playing dumb was nothing more than an act. Sadly, Travolta was the only one of the four leading characters to reach Hollywood stardom.

John Travolta, Ron Palillo, Gabe Kaplan, Robert Hegyes and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs in "Welcome Back, Kotter" | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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DIFFICULTY IN ACTING

Although the show was a success, Palillo did not gain much popularity behind the scenes. When the show ended, he found difficulty in landing a job and slowly grew resentful of his character.

In a previous newspaper interview, Palillo recalled how he started to dislike the show and how he was being turned down because they couldn't see him playing any other part. He said:

"I know him, love what he does, not right for the part. Everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack. I resented Horshack for so many years."

John Travolta, Ron Palillo, Gabe Kaplan, Robert Hegyes and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs in "Welcome Back, Kotter" | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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LIFE AFTER "WELCOME BACK, KOTTER"

Palillo eventually landed a few supporting roles in television shows such as "The A-Team" and "The Love Boat," but the Horshack curse still followed him throughout his career. "I think producers could smell the desperation in me," he previously said, as told by The New York Times.

In 1991, he moved to New York City and appeared on the drama "One Year to Live" for a year. He then went back to perform on stage and landed a lead role in the Off-Off-Broadway production "Amadeus." He also starred in "Guys and Dolls," "Camelot" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

While rethinking his career, Palillo returned to his alma mater in Connecticut and taught drama. In 2008, he starred in the independent short film "The Curse of Micah Rood." Two years later, he moved to a life behind the audience and directed the musical "The Lost Boy," which he also wrote.

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Ron Palillo as Arnold Hoshack in "Welcome Back, Kotter" | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

HIS PERSONAL LIFE

In 2010, two years before passing away from a sudden heart attack, Palillo moved to Florida to be closer to his mother and landed a job as a teacher at the G-Star School of Arts in West Palm Beach.

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Palillo never had any children and was survived by his longtime partner, Joseph Gramm, as well as his brothers Richard Palillo and Robert Palillo and sister, Ann. His agent, Scott Stander, described the late actor as "upbeat, fun, a great friend who loved theater, loved the fans, and had a great sense of humor."

In 2014, news about Palillo's death recirculated, causing confusion that he died again, whereas his passing was in 2012. Fans who did not hear about his initial demise began sending their heartfelt condolences on social media.

Ron Palillo in "Adelaide's Lament" during the 2009 Broadway Backwards at the American Airlines Theatre in New York City | Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage via Getty Images

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DEATH FROM A HEART ATTACK

It seems that dying from a heart attack is common among Hollywood actors. In 2005, actor, writer, and comedian Richard Pryor also passed away due to a third heart attack.

Pryor, known as one of the greatest comedians of his time, was the man who influenced modern-day actors in the same genre, including Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and David Letterman.

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