METUCHEN, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey-born Robert Hegyes, the actor best known for playing Jewish Puerto Rican student Juan Epstein on the 1970s TV show “Welcome Back Kotter” has died. He was 60.
A spokesman at JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J., told the Star-Ledger newspaper that Hegyes, of Metuchen, arrived at the hospital Thursday morning in full cardiac arrest and died.
Hegyes was appearing on Broadway in 1975 when he auditioned for “Kotter,” a TV series about a teacher who returns to the inner-city New York school of his youth to teach a group of irreverent remedial students nicknamed the “Sweathogs.” They included the character Vinnie Barbarino, played by John Travolta.
PHOTO GALLERY: Notable Deaths 2012
The show’s theme song, performed by John Sebastian, became a pop hit.
Just last year, Hegyes and nearly all of the “Kotter” cast members reunited at the TV Land Awards to recognize the show’s 35th anniversary.
Hegyes also appeared on many other TV series, including “Cagney & Lacey.”
He was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in Metuchen, the eldest child of a Hungarian father and Italian mother.
He attended Rowan University, formerly Glassboro State College, in southern New Jersey, before heading to New York City after graduation. He returned to Rowan on several occasions to teach master classes in acting, a university spokesman said Thursday.
“He was a good friend to the university,” spokesman Joe Cardona said.
Hegyes continued to act after “Kotter” and was a regular on “Cagney & Lacey.” He also guest-starred in shows including “Diagnosis Murder” and “The Drew Carey Show.”
On his website, Hegyes wrote that he was inspired by Chico Marx, whom he had played in a touring production of a show about the Marx Bros. He also recalled how his mother encouraged him to get involved in theater as a teen.
(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)