Robert Hegyes/ photo by Richard Sennott

News is out that Robert Hegyes died yesterday. You may not know the name, but folks of a certain generation will remember his most famous character: Epstein of "Welcome Back, Kotter."

I had the chance to have lunch with him in 1995 and thought I would share that interview with you. Note: Hegyes shaved six years off his age, a lie I didn't pick up until the article was printed. His mother would have been very upset.

ST. PAUL - Only one Sweathog got out.

His name was Vinnie Barbarino, a monosyllabic delinquent who
could charm girls with a single grunt and make his enemies cower,
simply by suggesting that they slide a rubber hose into their
nostrils. John Travolta escaped TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter" by
spending his afterschool hours making pop records and starring in
blockbuster movies, including "Saturday Night Fever."

The rest of the Sweathogs, cursed by '70s nostalgia and
afternoon reruns of the show, which ran from 1975 to '79 on ABC,
have been permanently held back at Buchanan High School: Boom Boom
Washington, Arnold Horshack and Juan Epstein.

"There was a time that I didn't want to talk about it. I guess
I wanted more than I was getting." Robert Hegyes, 38, who created
the character of Epstein, sank his teeth into a cheese-steak
sandwich in a booth at the Heartthrob Cafe, a downtown St. Paul
diner decorated with film posters and stills from classic TV shows.
"I'll always be typecast. This is not the guy who's going to play
the doctor from Iowa, you know what I mean? That's something that
took time to understand."

After years of trying to distance himself from the show,
Hegyes, still sporting that curly mop of black hair and flashing a
wide, disarming smile, chatted about those "Welcome Back, Kotter"
days and seemed excited that Nickelodeon has purchased all 100
episodes of the program. It will join the cable channel's weeknight
lineup during the summer.

The channel will celebrate the acquisition with a week-long
marathon of the series starting 7 to 10 p.m. today.

They remember show

If he had any resentment toward his old character, it was
tested during his Twin Cities visit, when he spent a Saturday night
partying at the Rogue, Loon Cafe, First Avenue, Glam Slam and Nye's
Polonaise Room and was recognized by at least a few fans at each

"Someone stopped me last night and said that when the show was
on the air, she had an 18-month-old girl and her first words were
` Epstein' and `Barbarino,' " Hegyes said. "I thought that was very

At the Heartthrob the next day, the restaurant staff turned off
the taped '50s music, slipped in "Greased Lightning" from the
"Grease" soundtrack and blasted the volume. John Travolta's voice
boomed out over the half-filled restaurant as several employees
lined up in front of Hegyes' booth and performed a dance, in roller

"This must be the dinner show," Hegyes said while Erik Forsberg,
21, a waiter, performed a frantic act, spinning on the floor in his
red suspenders and slapping a nearby table like a caffeinated Karate

Hegyes was teaching high school in New Jersey when he was cast
for "Welcome Back, Kotter," a sitcom starring Gabe Kaplan., who
returns to his Brooklyn alma mater to teach. Epstein, a
wheeling-dealing Puerto Rican, quickly became known for the
outlandish excuses he would bring in for missing class, supposedly
written by his mother.

"The take on the character was, he's got an excuse for
everything," Hegyes said. "He's the guy who ran the scams, the
numbers, always had an idea to get rich quick."

Silliness, belly laughs

Hegyes said Lucille Ball used to come by and watch the show
and that he believes she was a fan because it relied on silliness,
unlike such character-based '70s sitcoms as "All in the Family" and
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Since the show was canceled in 1979, Hegyes has not done much
television, except for a brief job as Detective Manny Esposito on
"Cagney & Lacey" in the late '80s. He has written seven unproduced
movies and performs stand-up comedy in a few L.A. clubs. But what
he's really hoping for is another sitcom. And if it invokes memories
of Juan Epstein, all the better.

"My character would be in charge of another five or six
juvenile delinquents," said Hegyes, explaining his dream show. "It
would be like `Dear John' for teenagers. They'd show up for
counseling sessions. It'd be a juvenile delinquent from yesterday
taking care of delinquents from today. Of course, I couldn't use the
character's name, but everyone would get it."


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