R.I.P. Robert Hegyes, A.K.A. Juan Epstein: An Unlikely Hero Of Immigrant Kids

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Actor Robert Hegyes died after an apparent heart attack in his native New Jersey yesterday, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reports. The 60-year-old, who acted on Broadway, co-starred in Cagney and Lacey and guest-starred in everything from the Drew Carey Show to Diagnosis Murder, will forever be remembered as high school student Juan Luis Pedro Filipo De Huevos Epstein, his role on Welcome Back, Kotter, from 1975-1979.

Most people think of Kotter as the show that made John Travolta’s career. Not me. Though of Italian descent himself, the Jewish Puerto Rican Hegyes played has always been a kind of icon for mixed-up products of immigration. As the daughter of a Dominican and a Hungarian Israeli, I basically grew up hearing “Juan Epstein” jokes all my life, and I can’t say I minded it. If people associated my crazy background with a wise-cracking kid on TV reruns, that seemed pretty cool to me. Even in a sitcom setting, Juan’s exchange with Gabe Kaplan’s Mr. Kotter in the first episode sounds mighty familiar.

Kotter: Your mother’s Puerto Rican?
Epstein: No, my father. My mother’s name is Bibberman.
Kotter: I didn’t know there were Epsteins in Puerto Rico.
Epstein: Oh, there weren’t. Until the winter of ’38, when a boat carrying a shivering Lou Epstein from Odessa to the Bronx stopped in San Juan.

Check out this video of the Kotter cast’s reunion at last year’s TV Land Awards.


[Photo: ABC, Getty Images]

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