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Updated: 4:56 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 | Posted: 11:08 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012

Obit: Ron Palillo, 63, ‘Kotter’ star, G-star teacher

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Ron Palillo
Taylor Jones
Actor Ron Palillo in 2009.

By Leslie Gray Streeter

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Ron Palillo wanted to be known as more than Arnold Horshack, to be recognized for the breadth of his career, which spanned 1970s television to New York theater, as an actor, playwright and illustrator, and, finally as a dedicated teacher.

Still, he’d do the laugh if you asked.

“I think he looked at it as a launching-off point for his career, but he was such a wonderful actor, into the more serious stuff,” longtime friend Stacy Sacco said of Horshack, the goofy class cut-up and rebellious Sweathog that Mr. Palillo played on the 1970s series Welcome Back, Kotter, alongside series creator and actor Gabe Kaplan and a young John Travolta.

“He appreciated that it was such an iconic character,” added Sacco. “And he would absolutely do that imitation.”

Mr. Palillo, who died of a heart attack Tuesday morning at his Palm Beach Gardens home at age 63, brought the same charm and enthusiasm to his life and career as he did to his signature role, say all who knew him.

“He was an extremely gracious human being,” said G-Star School of the Arts principal Kim Collins, who worked with Mr. Palillo for the three years he taught acting to 9-12 grade students at the Palm Springs charter school. “His students admired and respected him. He really wanted what was best for them and wanted to share his craft with them, because he was so good at it — not that he would say that. He was very humble.”

Mr. Palillo had not been ill or hospitalized, Sacco said. He had lived in Palm Beach Gardens for more than three years with Joseph Gramm, his partner of 41 years.

“He just couldn’t have been more fun and intelligent or talented. He was an amazing human being,” said Sacco, also of Palm Beach Gardens, who met Mr. Palillo 20 years ago when he guested on Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom in Los Angeles, on which Sacco was a script supervisor.

“I had been a fan. We all knew who he was. He was a shining star,” Sacco said.

A Connecticut native, Mr. Palillo studied theater at the University of Connecticut, where he would one day return as an adjunct professor. His career took off in 1975 with Kotter, based on Kaplan’s own high school days in Brooklyn. Mr. Pallilo’s Horshack become known for that braying trademark laugh and emphatic “OOH OOH OOH!” when he wanted to be called on in class.

Mr. Palillo, who did other television and theater in the years since Kotter, thought of those days “like someone would be talking about their college days, the stuff they did in another lifetime,” Sacco said. “The show was only on for four years, which in the grand scheme of his life was a blip.”

She says there was much to know about her friend apart from his Sweathog days — he was an illustrator of children’s books, and wrote a play, The Lost Boy, about the true-life story of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, that was produced in New York. After becoming close friends with Mr. Palillo, Sacco introduced him to Karen Poindexter, then the executive director of the Burt Reynolds Theater and a producer at the former Cuillo Theater on Clematis Street.

Soon, Mr. Palillo was working with the theater as well, appearing in the play A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, and soon got to G-Star through Poindexter, a former board member — “He and Joe moved down from New York right away,” Sacco said.

G-Star principal Collins said that the job was Palillo’s first permanent position at the high school level, and that he smiled at the thought that he, now, was Mr. Kotter, responsible for the learning of other Horshacks and Barbarinos. And he took that seriously.

Mr. Palillo was involved in Kids Rule! In The Arts, a community arts program, and with Broadway Cares, the AIDS charity of the Actors Equity union.

He also had lectured in colleges and high schools all over the country before coming to Palm Beach County.

“From the moment I heard about G-Star … it sounded like everything I wanted as a student when I went to high school,” Palillo told The Palm Beach Post in 2009.

“To have this when I was a kid would’ve been astonishing and I knew I wanted to be part of it.”

“He was the kind of guy that you met and immediately made you feel really good,” Greg Hauptner, founder and CEO of G-Star, said Tuesday.

Hauptner said when Palillo first came to G-Star, he taught 9th grade.

“These were 13-, 14-year-old kids, and they didn’t know Welcome Back Kotter,” Hauptner said.

“The kids went back and watched just about every episode.

“It drove him crazy, but he loved every minute of it.”

“He was just loved by everybody here,” Hauptner said. “He was a big part of our school. We’ll never forget him.

“The kids are going to miss him.”

Along with Travolta, who played lady’s man Vinnie Barbarino, the Kotter cast also included Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the cool Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington and Robert Hegyes, who played tough Jewish Puerto Rican wheeler-dealer Juan Epstein, according to tv.com.

Hegyes died in January from an apparent heart attack. He was 60.

Palillo told the Palm Beach Post in 2009 he loved Palm Beach County.

“I’ve always felt very at home here,” Palillo once said. “People go out of their way for you in West Palm Beach. They don’t do that in New York.”

Besides partner Gramm, Mr. Palillo is survived by sister Ann, who lives in Connecticut, and brothers Richard and Bobby, of Florida.

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