Obituary: Actor Ron Palillo, 1945-2012

Actor Ron Palillo, who’s best known for his portrayal of the enthusiastically silly “Sweathog” Arnold Horshack on the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, died on Tuesday, August 14, in West Palm Beach, Florida, of an apparent heart attack. He was 63.

Ron Palillo sceneI had the chance to speak with Mr. Palillo five years ago for the dearly departed Video Business Magazine on the eve of Warner’s DVD release of Welcome Back Kotter: The Complete First Season in June, 2007. The affable former Sweathog only had nice things to say about his career and former co-workers.

“I never thought the show was gonna get picked up in the first place,” was one of the first things that Palillo told me. “It’s been about twenty years since I watched them–they chopped minutes out of the shows when they went into syndication—so it will be really nice to see the shows the way they were originally done.”

Reminiscing alongside Pallilo on the DVD’s supplemental portions are series stars Gabe Kaplan and Marcia Strassman, as well as fellow Sweathogs Robert Hegyes (who died in January of this year), and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Conspicuously absent from the proceedings is John Travolta, who launched his career as Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino.

Ron Palillo encounters Jason Voorhees in the pre-credit sequence of 1986's Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

“I don’t know why John wouldn’t want to do this—it’s not my turn to watch him,” Palillo laughed. “Welcome Back Kotter—it’s history now. I can’t change it even if I want to. So why would I not want to pretend it never happened? Now is the time to celebrate it!”

Of his performances on the show, Pallilo said, “After the first dozen or so Kotter shows, we had a long time off. I watched all the episodes, I’d look at me and say “That’s not me, that’s someone else.” I started getting subtler after the thirteenth show and I learned more about TV acting. Sitcom acting back then was one step above dinner theater. Subtlety was not its strongest suit. We were young and there was an exuberance about it that made it fun!”

Following his four years of work on Kotter, Palillo continued to work in television (he appeared on countless series of the era, including The Love Boat, Alice and The A Team), theater and film. On the big screen, he’s most known for his appearance as a victim of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives, where he’s slain before the opening credits.

“I did it that role as a favor and since I knew they were gonna spend more money on my scenes at the beginning than on the rest of the film,” remembered Palillo. “I’ve been told that Time Magazine said I was the only reason to watch the movie. Jason pulls my heart out—it was fun.”


About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.