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'Sweathog' Robert Hegyes dies from heart attack

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 27th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Long before Bart Simpson, the "sweathogs" on TV's "Welcome Back Kotter" were under-acheivers, and proud of it ma-an. That Seventies TV show focused on a class of likable would-be dropouts in an inner city high school, one of whom actor John Travolta would go on to big screen success. Robert Hegyes, who played the wheelin' dealin' Jewish-Puerto Rican student Juan Epstein has died, far too early from a heart attack. He was 60.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Hegyes also co-starred on "Cagney and Lacey" taught occasional master classes at his alma mater, Rowan University. Hegyes and nearly all of the original cast members reunited last year at the TV Land Awards to recognize the show's 35th anniversary.

Hegyes wrote on his Web site that he modeled the skirt-chasing Epstein after Chico Marx, whom he played in a national touring production of "A Night With Groucho." Hegyes had an affinity for the Marx Brothers, saying "They were immigrant Jews, and I was an immigrant Italian. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo were intellectuals . They all played the piano and took music lessons, and they were all juvenile delinquents; I could definitely relate."

According to his brother, Hegyes had suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago and was not in good health. Metuchen police responded to a call for medical assistance from Hegyes' home who complained of chest pains. Taken to JFK Medical Center, by the time he arrived at the emergency room he was in full cardiac arrest and died shorlty afterwards.

Hegyes, whose father was Hungarian-American and whose mother was Italian-American, was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey. Hegyes wrote that his mother, a big Broadway musical and Frank Sinatra fan, stoked his theatrical ambitions, making him sing along with Ol' Blue Eyes and "incessantly" to "Maria" from "West Side Story."

Graduating from Rowan University with a bachelor's degree in speech/theater and secondary education, he quickly found work in New York, co-starring Off-Broadway in "Naomi Court" and in the Broadway drama "Don't Call Back." He was then cast as Epstein, a role he played for "Kotter"'s four-season run on ABC.

Hegyes continued to act on television, mostly in guest-starring roles including "NewsRadio," "Diagnosis Murder" and "The Drew Carey Show," and made occasional films, including "Bob Roberts" with Tim Robbins.

Hegyes leaves behind three siblings, two children, Cassie and Mack, and two step-children, Sophia and Alex.

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