This weekend Roberto Hegyes died at age 60. I wouldn’t have paid notice if not for my husband, who, reading from the New York Times obituary reminded me that Hegyes was Juan Epstein on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The Sweathog voted “most likely to kill a person” and the one always strutting in late to class with an absence excuse signed, “Epstein’s Mom.”
I didn’t know my husband had been a fan of the show at the time, while growing up in some “god-forsaken country down under,” American TV being one of his few portals to a life that mattered, seemed real, and half-normal. Meanwhile, I, ten thousand miles away, a Valley Girl growing up in SoCal, was also a Kotter fan thanks to my father and older brother. That half hour each week was one of the rare times they truly enjoyed each other’s company back then, each, in his own way, vying for the role of the loveable, hilarious Gabe Kotter, the teacher whose deadpan looks, quips, and closing jokes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7roFyOIviMY&feature=related) might make you fall out of your chair laughing, what my father did often watching the show, when all fighting in our family ceased, as if suddenly we all understood each other.
For my sisters and I though the show was about one thing: Vinnie Barbarino, the character that put John Travolta on the stratosphere. He was the only one of the Sweathogs to go on and do great film, and you’ll immediately think of Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Pulp Fiction. But the list, which goes on and on, has so much more depth. Think Primary Colors for a minute, and his mesmerizing performance as Jack Stanton, aka Bill Clinton. The movie covets a chapter in my book, Reel Life, a novel about a dysfunctional family whose narrative thread moves forward via the iconic films they watch at pivotal moments in their lives. In the Primary Colors chapter, two grown sisters take a breather from their mother’s manic run for City Council by sneaking off to see the movie’s premier at a swank theater in Santa Monica. It’s no luck that they bump into the actor in the lobby after he’s made his red carpet appearance. He’s aged, they agree, though in their minds he would always be Vinnie Barbarino, and God he was handsome back then.