I was thinking about Ron Palillo on the day that he died last week. I had pretty much settled on the idea that this card was going to be about the lockout and was working on the normal “how do I get there from here” part of the post-writing process and figuring out just what role Horshack was going to play in the whole thing. It wasn’t until the following morning that I heard of his passing. The lockout can wait for another day. I have the feeling I’ll be able to talk about it for quite some time.
This hasn’t been a good year for the Kotter alumni. We lost Robert Hegyes (Esptein) in January and now Palillo. Both were young (Hegyes 60, Palillo 63), yet also shockingly old to me, who still imagines both of them as somehow uninvolved in time and still appearing exaxctly as they did in 1976. There’s a certain immortality in cardboard and reruns and it’s a shock to the system to realize that time has really progressed to the extent that it has and that it didn’t just impact the people I knew but also the people I watched. Horshack and Epstein can’t be 60-odd years old with 30-some years of life behind them. They need to be who they were.
Of course, they never really were who they “were.” Even in 1976, they were far too old to be playing the parts they played. There was always a willing suspension of disbelief involved in a series like Kotter. By the end of the four-year run, Palillo, the oldest of the Sweathogs, was pushing 30. He was only four years younger than Gabe Kaplan and just one year younger than Marcia Strassman. Costume and role-playing made it work.
Kotter was one of a number of early 70s comedies that dealt with otherwise untouchable subjects through humour. It was never as edgy as All in the Family or Sanford and Son but still dealt with issues of poverty, race, failure and violence. This wasn’t simply a redo of Room 222.
When Kotter went on the air in 1974, the notion of a show dealing with an inner-city integrated school wasn’t a slam dunk to even get on the air. In cities like Boston, dealing with a busing crisis and racial tensions, the first few episodes didn’t even get on the air until the show was determined not to be controversial.
Normally, I take these cards and try to find within the image whatever metaphors I can for the greater concepts of the show and then expand from there into whatever subject I’m interested in. This card offers a number of starting points, particularly their positioning in the middle of the Kotters’ living room window.
What I want to look at today, though, is a lot simpler. Just look at the mood. They’re young, healthy, vibrant, happy. There’s an impish quality to their grins, probably derived from the Hegyes suggestion that they model themselves on the Marx brothers so as to be more funny than threatening. There is no threat to these two despite Epstein’s projections of toughness.
Horshack is the least threatening of all. If any character on TV ever personified relentless vulnerability than Arnold, I don’t know who it is. The others could hide behind varying degrees of coolness. Arnold was out there for the world to see. There was never any malice to him.
Horshack was every quiet kid, every shy kid, everyone who meant well but didn’t always succeed. Of all of the Sweathogs, I liked him the best – most likely because he represented me more than any of the rest of them. Or I think of him that way, anyway. Horshack was that earnest, well-meaning person who might not be a lot of things but always makes a good friend.
I always imagined Palillo the same way. After he died, I read that Horshack was to him what Ginger was to Tina Louise or Spock was to Leonard Nimoy. This was the role that made him a name, yet so defined him in the public eye that it became the only role he was ever allowed to play. He couldn’t be anyone else. He could only be Horshack. This led to issues with depression and a time out of the public eye.
At the end, it seemed like he’d found peace with everything. Like Hegyes, he was teaching young actors, had a stable life with a partner of 41 years and is being missed as a genuinely nice guy. So maybe at the end he was Horshack after all.
Godspeed, guys, and a pleasant journey.
The title of this came from “Can Mr. Kotter come out and play,” which evoked to me the old Elton John song Empty Garden, written after the New York death of John Lennon. The post was supposed to make more use of it, but it didn’t really turn out that way.