If you asked us which television character we most resemble, many suggestions would rapidly come to mind. Zack Morris for his blonde hair good looks and cunning. Mike Seaver for his teenage heartthrob good looks and mischievous charm. Cousin Cody for his laid-back surfer dude good looks and martial arts skills. But while those are all great contenders, we have to admit that there’s another character in the television pantheon with whom we most identify: Arnold Horshack, played so brilliantly and honestly by Ron Palillo, who passed away yesterday at sixty-three.
We recall very clearly the summer in which we first fell in love with Welcome Back Kotter. No, it was not the Summer of ’77, but almost twenty years later when the show was in syndication on Nick at Nite, as that network began to shift its designation of “classic TV” from the black & white oldies like The Donna Reed Show and Mr. Ed to the grainy full color ’70s shows like Kotter and The Bob Newhart Show. Nick at Nite would run marathons of Kotter once a week, as part of their “Block Party Summer” programming gambit, and watching those episodes back-to-back-to-back was just about the best block party we ever went to. But we also remember the show airing nightly at 11pm, perhaps the following summer or the one after that. This sticks with us vividly because we recollect having to make a tough decision, a Sophie’s choice: Seinfeld, airing every night in syndication as still does to this day, the undisputed sitcom champ of its time and perhaps anytime, or Welcome Back Kotter, the over the hill has-been who was also the new kid on the block. Even though Kotter was about fifteen years older, and had achieved lunch box-level success, it felt very much like a wily up-and-comer taking on the unbeatable stalwart. But while our head told us that we should choose Seinfeld, that it was the superior show, the one that was not only plugged into the zeitgeist but was driving it, we felt this tug towards the Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs. Did the latter show have hugs and heart while the former swore off that sort of sentimentality as its guiding principle? Certainly. But we weren’t quite the cynics we are now, not quite submerged in snark-infested waters. And despite the magnetic north of Nielsen ratings and cultural relevance pointing towards Jerry and the gang, and despite our unconditional love for that show then, now and forever, we followed our hearts further up the dial, further into the hinterlands of cable, towards Gabe and the gang.
And it wasn’t a decision we ever regretted, finding Welcome Back Kotter to be as crackling whip-smart as any sitcom from any decade. What really made it exciting and enjoyable for us was that the audience laughter seemed so real, so close and palpable, like the show was just a live recording of one of the world’s greatest stage comedies. And the actors seemed so loose, so honest, that their laughs seemed just as genuine, especially Gabe Kaplan, who appeared perennially on the edge of cracking up (and just plain cracking), not unlike the frequent state of Jerry Seinfeld (and you can make the same argument that Kaplan’s constant look of just barely holding it together was as much a function of the talented, hilarious actors around him as it was his stand-up comedy background proving to be poor training for advanced scenework). It almost felt like a hidden secret, that there was this amazing, gut-busting, fun show that no one knew about (except the millions of people who were not born four years after the show went off the air). And chief among the fun was the performances of the actors, who created such vivid, distinct characters, each with their own trademarks, catchphrases, movements and fully formed personas; Vinnie Barbarino, Arnold Horshack, Juan Epstein, and Freddy “Boom-Boom” Washington, such strikingly distinct characters, but all entirely, wholly Sweathogs. We were enamored with all of them, studying their movements and speech patterns. We have to believe that there weren’t many twelve-year-olds going around in 1997 brandishing impressions of all four Sweathogs, offering them up unsolicited to their friend’s moms (a blistering, multi-faceted, virtuoso performance we can still do to this day).
But while we continued to refine our Sweathog impressions (and probably were most adept at Barbarino), we felt most connected to Horshack. Yes, Ron Palillo is of Italian descent, but the character he played felt all Jew (again, not unlike Seinfeld in which the only thing not Jewish about George Costanza was the name, especially as we later learned how much George was a Larry David proxy). But we didn’t just relate to Horshack on that cultural level; even though we were still in middle school and Palillo was an adult playing a teenager, we already felt like the skinny, scrawny, sensitive guy with the guttural chortle and weak handshake. We imagine that during time we pleaded with our teachers to call on us much the same way that Horshack did, arm so painfully outstretched that it threatens to leave the torso completely, rail-thin body barely able to contain the infant like sounds of excitement and anticipation.
Perhaps we were (and are) being to hard on ourselves, but we certainly saw something of a kindred spirit in Horshack. And it wasn’t just the overeager gyrations and high-pitched squeals and fey disposition that reminded us of us. It was his sensitivity and intelligence. Yes, he was a Sweathog, but we always felt he was in Mr. Kotter’s class because he was a fellow misfit, not because wasn’t smart. And he just wanted to be taken seriously, whether it was being considered tough enough for a schoolyard fight or being cool enough to be asked to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. There was some sadness there, probably some resentment too, but there was also a lot of pride.
Horshack knew who he was and he was proud of it. Sometimes it just took a little grunting and snorting to make others take notice.
R.I.P. Ron Palillo