Ron Palillo, the actor best known as the nerdy high school student Arnold Horshack on the 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," died Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He was 63.
Palillo suffered an apparent heart attack at his home about 4 a.m., said Karen Poindexter, a close friend of the actor. He was pronounced dead at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
Palillo was inextricably linked with the character he played from 1975 to 1979 on the ABC sitcom "Kotter," in which the title character returns to his Brooklyn alma mater to teach a group of lovable wiseguys known as the Sweathogs. Horshack was the nasally teen who yelped, "Oooh, ooh," and shot his hand skyward whenever Kotter posed a question.
The show was a ratings success and pop-cultural phenomenon, injecting smart-aleck phrases such as "Up your nose with a rubber hose" into the mainstream and propelling co-star John Travolta to stardom. But the series only lasted as long as a high school education and its end, for Palillo, brought difficulty.
He said he felt exiled throughout the 1980s, unable to find parts, sinking into depression, and rarely venturing from his apartment. When offers did come, he felt typecast as Horshack. "While I loved him, I really loved him, I didn't want to do him forever," he told the Birmingham News in 1994.
Ronald Paolillo was born April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Conn., eventually dropping the first "o" from his surname. His father died of lung cancer when he was 10 and he developed a stutter. His mother thought getting him involved in a local theater might help. He fell in love with the stage and overcame his speech impediment. He attended the University of Connecticut and earned parts in Shakespearean productions before his big break.
When he auditioned for "Kotter," he thought he'd be passed over for others who had more of a tough-guy New York look. He told interviewers that his dying father's voice inspired his character's trademark wheezing laugh. And he said Horshack tapped into feelings any teen could relate to.
"I think he was the smartest kid in school," he told the Miami Herald in 2009. "He was giving up his aptitude in order to be liked. Then and now, that is a very common thing in teenagers."
Palillo is survived by his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm; two brothers, and a sister.