Rich or Rehab: Whatever Happened to Arnold Horshack?

horshackIf you watched “Welcome Back, Kotter” when you were a kid, you probably had a favorite Sweathog. Some preferred John Travolta’s Vinnie Barbarino because, let’s face it, he was pretty hot. Others admired the “Hi there” smoothness of one Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington. And still others stood in quiet awe of Juan Epstein and his unsurpassed ability to forge notes from his mother.

Then there was Arnold Horshack, the goofy, guffawing, naive and sweet Sweathog who won the nation’s heart with his constant enthusiasm for answering questions in class. Horshack was played by a young actor named Ron Palillo. Does anyone want to know what he’s up to now? Please, don’t all raise your hands and shout, “Oooh! Oooh!” all at once.

To be fair, Palillo wasn’t exactly a child star during his “Kotter” days. He was well into his twenties when he won the role of Horshack. (Since he was playing a teenager, we at Rich or Rehab are letting that slide.) After four seasons on the high school sitcom, Palillo continued to work in television, getting small parts on a wide variety of shows in the ’80s, from “Alice” to “The A-Team” to “Trapper John, M.D.” He also loaned his voice to a few animated series, including “Rubik: The Amazing Cube” and “Midnight Patrol: Adventures in the Dreamland,” and popped up in a couple of movies here and there (see “Hellgate” … or, you know, don’t).

According to Palillo’s MySpace page, though, he was “all but ostracized from the Hollywood scene” during this time, unable to shake the ghost of Horshack. So he moved to New York and committed himself to the stage, amassing numerous stage credits in off-Broadway and community theater. He worked on his art, illustrating a couple of children’s books. He also guest starred as himself in a few episodes of “Ellen.”

But he still seemed a little sensitive about his “Kotter” days. I interviewed Palillo about a decade ago and, after asking a few “Kotter”-related questions, he got a little testy. It was clear that he really didn’t want to be associated with Horshack anymore, which was understandable. No actors wants to be thought of forever as a whiny high school kid. But on the other hand, he got to play a semi-iconic television character, one that people remembered precisely because Palillo made him so memorable. He should appreciate his Horshackness, I thought.

Well, he subsequently learned to on some level. A couple of years later, Palillo took advantage of the fame brought on by his old scarf-wearing alter ego by facing off against Dustin Diamond’s Screech in “Celebrity Boxing”; he also appeared in the movie “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.”

As for what he’s up to in 2009, Palillo has become a real-life Kotter of sorts. The Sun-Sentinel reports that he’s now teaching theater at a high school in Palm Beach County, Fla.; you can even watch him in classroom action during a video that’s associated with the story. Palillo said he plans to continue taking on acting projects in his downtime as a teacher. And as for any Horshack jokes his students might make? Palillo now says he doesn’t mind them so much.

“It’s history,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “It’s flattering.” Now that’s the right attitude.


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