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One of Jersey’s Own Passes On – Part of TV Past

epstein
Irogers13 / flickr

Word broke out last yesterday that actor Robert Hegyes passed away from an apparent heart attack at the age of 60.  Hegyes is a part of TV history past with a show that is still such a Cult Classic over 35 years later that it’s bound for the big screen, and his legacy has deep ties to the Garden State.

Hegyes grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey (Middlesex County), an area not far from the main campus of Rutgers University with a population of around 15,000 in the town.  He was born in Perth Amboy, the same town that his cousin Jon Bon Jovi was born in.  Many people on the web were surprised to find this fact out upon Robert’s passing, but there is a wonderful photo of the two of them when they were younger on his website.

Hegyes has ties to South Jersey as a graduate of Rowan University (Glassboro State when he attended).  Robert took his theater background to NYC and pursue his dream.  His Broadway and “Off B-Way” experience saw him work with Academy Award nominee Brad Davis, plus Tony Award winners Len Cariou and Arlene Francis.  He took his experience to parlay it into TV with the role that would mainly define his career – Juan Epstein in Welcome Back Kotter.

As a member of “The Sweathogs”, Epstein always seemed to have a note from his mother to try to find his way out of stuff (one that comes to mind was when Juan tried to get out of a test because of his Bursitis – Kotter knows he wrote the note, but as Epstein explains “Her Bursitis is worse that mine!”)

Within 4 years of graduating from Rowan, Hegyes was a TV star in a Top-20 Nielsen rated show for ABC that saw his likeness popping up on lunch boxes and board games.  By 1979, Kotter ended a 4-year run that could not continue without its top Sweathog - John Travolta.  The show may have ended, but a friendship between Robert and John endured over the years, so much so that Travolta is the Godfather to Hegyes’ children.

By the 80′s, Hegyes played a role close to his heart – Chico Marx in the national touring production of An Evening With Groucho.  Hegyes admitted that his Epstein character was inspired by the great Marx Brother.  The role was a natural for Robert, and ironically had the chance to reunite with Mr. Kotter in this production as Gabe Kaplan (who would occasionally impersonate Groucho on the hit show) played opposite Hegyes in this production.

Robert’s second coming on TV happened thanks to Cagney & Lacey in 1986.  Joining the cast as Detective Manny Esposito, Hegyes seem to enjoy this 2nd chapter of success, and he try to maximize his exposure with numerous appearances on TV games shows (don’t be surprised to see GSN air his time on the $25,000 and $100,000 Pyramid this weekend).

After his 2 season run on CBS, Hegyes popped on the big screen in the critically acclaimed Tim Robbins film Bob Roberts in 1992, then returned for the Cagney & Lacey movie in 1994 which had ratings success, then Robert seem to fade off.

Recently at the TV Land Awards in 2011, Hegyes was reunited with his cast of Kotter to celebrate the show’s impact and it’s 35th Anniversary.  Hegyes seemed joyous for this occasion – he was a little heavier, grayer, but with all of his curly hair and a huge smile on his face.

Hegyes was in his Metuchen home when he developed chest pains, was taken to JFK Hospital in Edison where he was pronounced dead.

The impact of Robert’s work as Epstein was a big part of today’s 40-something generation who remember the show and his character warmly.  One 40-something fan has decided to give Kotter a whirl on the big screen with a twist.  Ice Cube is putting the finishing touches on a new version of Welcome Back Kotter for release toward the end of this year.  This time South Central L.A. is the backdrop as oppose to Brooklyn, but the premise stays the same.

Tom Haydon of the Star Ledger has reported that Hegyes’ viewing will be at Flynn & Son Funeral Home in Fords, NJ, on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

In memory of Epstein, here’s the theme that will make anyone smile.  RIP Robert Hegyes.

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