Robert Hegyes, the Jersey-born actor who played Jewish Puerto Rican wheeler-dealer Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein on the 1970s classic “Welcome Back Kotter,” died from an apparent heart attack after suffering chest pains at his Metuchen home this morning. He was 60.
Hegyes, who also co-starred on “Cagney and Lacey” and taught occasional master classes at his alma mater, Rowan University, was best known for his work on “Kotter,” in which he performed alongside a young John Travolta as one of the tough remedial students known at the Sweathogs. Hegyes and nearly all of the original cast members reunited last year at the TV Land Awards to recognize the show’s 35th anniversary.
On his website, Hegyes wrote that he modeled the swaggering, skirt-chasing Epstein after Chico Marx, whom he played in a national touring production of “A Night With Groucho.” He was a big fan of the Marx Brothers: “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.”
Hegyes had suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago and was not in good health, his brother Mark Hegyes of Montana said. Metuchen police responded to a call for medical assistance from Hegyes’ home at 9:02 a.m., and Hegyes, who was experiencing chest pains, was taken to JFK Medical Center in Edison, police said. By the time he arrived at the emergency room at 9:40 a.m., he was in full cardiac arrest and died, according to hospital spokesman Steven Weiss.
Hegyes, whose father was Hungarian-American and whose mother was Italian-American, was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in Metuchen. He was one of the kids equally at home on the gridiron and in the footlights. His nickname: Chico. He 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.”
He graduated from Rowan University (then Glassboro State College) with a bachelor’s degree in speech/theater and secondary education — Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona called him a “great friend” of the school, noting that he sported a Rowan shirt while co-starring as Det. Esposito on “Cagney and Lacey” — and 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.
Following “Kotter” and “Cagney & Lacey,” he 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. He also taught at Brooks College of Long Beach, Calif., and wrote screenplays. Peter Loewy, who runs the Forum Theatre Arts Center in Metuchen, says he planned to work with Hegyes on a one-man show a year or so ago, but Hegyes’ health problems — he needed a hip replacement, among other things — put it on hold indefinitely. “He was a gentle guy,” Loewy remembers. “He had, ironically, a big heart.”
Hegyes was retired but still talked about directing and getting more involved in local arts efforts, Mark Hegyes said. “He always had these great schemes,” his brother said, “but last week he said I’m not going to do that anymore.”
Hegyes leaves behind three siblings, two children, Cassie and Mack, and two step-children, Sophia and Alex.
Visitation will be at Flynn & Son Funeral Home at 23 Ford Ave., Fords, New Jersey on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The funeral will take place during the evening visiting hours.
Star-Ledger staff writer Tom Haydon contributed to this report.