Robert Hegyes, who co-starred with John Travolta on the 1970s TV show Welcome Back Kotter, has died at 60, apparently of a heart attack. His health had been suffering for years, his brother said; he died yesterday at his home in the New Jersey town where he grew up. On Kotter, Hegyes played Juan Epstein, a Jewish Puerto Rican remedial student who was one of the show's "Sweathogs." Hegyes once wrote that he based his character on Chico Marx: "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 performed on Broadway before joining the cast of Kotter for its four seasons on ABC. He later appeared as a guest star in shows like NewsRadio and The Drew Carey Show and also co-starred on Cagney and Lacey. In addition to a few film roles, he wrote screenplays and taught at two colleges. Health problems prevented a one-man show planned in recent years. "He was a gentle guy," a New Jersey theater head tells the Star-Ledger. "He had, ironically, a big heart."