WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — 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. local time, said Karen Poindexter, a close friend of the actor. He was pronounced dead at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
Palillo was inextricably linked with Arnold Horshack, the character he played from 1975 to 1979 on “Kotter,” a hit ABC sitcom.
The show was a ratings success and pop cultural phenomenon, injecting smart-Alec 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 mother thought getting him involved in a local theater might help him get over his stutter. 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.
Palillo went on to get a host of bit parts in shows from “The Love Boat” to “Cagney and Lacey” to “The A-Team,” and played himself for a time on the series “Ellen.” But he remained best-known for his role on “Kotter,” and focused in his later years on stage directing and writing.
His last act in life mirrored his most famous one, in a real-life classroom instead of one at the fictional James Buchanan High School. Palillo taught acting at G-Star School of the Arts, a high school in West Palm Beach.