Ron Palillo, the boyish actor who played Arnold Horshack, the remedial-class loser on Welcome Back, Kotter, died Tuesday morning at his home near Palm Beach, Fla., TMZ reports. He was 63.
He suffered an apparent heart attack and was found by his longtime companion, Joseph Gramm, according to the report. Rushed to the hospital, Palillo, a heavy smoker, was pronounced dead upon arrival.
According to a 1977 PEOPLE profile, Palillo’s most-famous role cast him against type – he had been an overachiever from his childhood in Cheshire, Conn.
His dad died when Ron, the youngest of four children, 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,” he said – “did what Horshack could never do,” he told PEOPLE. “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 mentally challenged boy in The Hot I Baltimore off-Broadway. Despite his $3,000 income and 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 recalled with a laugh. “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.
The sitcom, on which Palillo appeared with John Travolta from 1975-79, allowed him to live the Hollywood good life in a hilltop house. But in the years that followed he developed a crippling depression that left him in near seclusion, he told PEOPLE in 1992. His turnaround came thanks to stage work.
TMZ also said he was attached to G-Star School of the Arts, a West Palm Beach academy that, on its website, calls itself “the largest film, acting and digital media high school in the nation.”
In a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Travolta said: Ron was a wonderful person and talent. And helped catapult Welcome Back, Kotter to great success. We will miss him.