The Henry Winkler Syndrome—a kid stars in an ABC sitcom, so he thinks he’s ready for Shakespeare—seemed finally to have gone too far. Now it was Ron Palillo, who plays Arnold Horshack, the remedial-class loser in Welcome Back, Kotter, sharing a stage in Stratford, Conn. with the likes of Liv Ullmann, Lynn Redgrave and Cyril Ritchard. “It took a week for me to get up the nerve to say yes,” he admits, but in fact Palillo had about as much right as Winkler to tread the bards.
Even before the Stratford invitation Ron, 23, was planning to return home during this year’s Kotter hiatus to do Shakespeare in a scholarship fundraiser at his alma mater, the University of Connecticut. His appearance would also honor the drama professor who “really taught me everything I know.” Weirdly enough, the teacher’s name was Mr. Katter, and the official title of the grant is the Ronald G. Palillo-Nafe E. Katter Scholarship.
“I can’t play a romantic role like Romeo,” Palillo admits, deferring to the Travoltas of this world. “These are ugly, funny love scenes,” he says of Shakespeare’s Other Side of Love, the mélange he put together for four performances on his old campus, and of the Taming of the Shrew excerpt he did at Stratford. Ironically, while shows like Kotter thrive, Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theater is in trouble. There will be no Shakespeare this summer, and last week’s gala was a benefit to salvage the future.
Not totally selfless, the prematurely graying Palillo worries that “I’ve created my own monster,” and participated in part to change his image. Horshack “will not be the apex of my career but just a stepping-stone,” he vows. Unlike Arnold, Palillo has been an overachiever from his childhood in Cheshire, Conn. His dad, a postmaster, died when Ron, the youngest of four, was 9. His mother managed to support them working for a furrier and as a waitress. He skipped two grades and co-founded a community theater by 14. But in high school the then 4’6″ Palillo suffered (“I know more about Arnold Horshack than people think I do”) and when pressed to conform “did what Horshack could never do. I left the group and chose the theater.” At 19 (and 5’7″) he graduated from college with a 3.6 grade average.
After six months of rep in Miami he snagged the role of the retarded boy in The Hot I Baltimore Off-Broadway. Despite his meager $3,000 income and grungy fifth-floor walk-up on New York’s Lower East Side, Palillo felt he was successful. “I was doing what I wanted to do,” he laughs, adding, “The day after I got one job I started hunting for the next.” It came when he heard ABC was searching for high school reprobates. Palillo auditioned and on the spot improvised his trademarked nervous “aawwk” laugh.
Today, Palillo drives a Mercedes 280 SL and recently purchased an aerie atop the Hollywood Hills that he shares with fledgling actor Mark Fletcher and their two mongrels, Fred and Arnold. Basically he’s a homebody who sketches and avoids parties (“If I did go, I’d just curl up in a corner and suck my thumb”). When he called Disneyland for passes during a visit of his mom, he was requested not to come—”They said they could give me only two bodyguards, and that would not be enough.” Nothing, including personal commitment, is going to get in the way of his ambition to star on Broadway. “Until I reach that goal, I don’t want to have any emotional ties,” he asserts.
Aside from Shakespeare, Palillo has also been playing in a revival of Room Service in Chicago and Neil Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl in Dallas. But, says Ron of his sudden rush of fame, “If all this ended tomorrow, I could be very happy as a teacher.” That should please Kotter—er, Katter.