It’s a sad day for “Welcome Back Kotter” fans. Robert Heyges, who played Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein, died yesterday at the age of 60. He had been suffering from heart problems for the last couple of years. Epstein was a member of the benign gang, the Sweathogs, along with Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Davis), and Arnold Horshak (Ron Palillo). They made life a living hell for their teacher Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan). Epstein always tried to weasel out of things by bringing forged notes from his mother, “Please excuse Juan Epstein being late, as he was hit the crosstown bus. Sincerely, Epstein’s mother”.
The wonderful thing about the character of Juan Epstein, besides the fact that he was hilarious, was that he demonstrated the diversity within the Latino community. Epstein was a Puerto Rican Jew, the only Latino-Jewish character that’s ever been on TV. As a Latino Jew myself, Epstein’s character meant a lot to me growing up. Finally, here was someone like me. Latino Jews are a minority within a minority. Epstein was particularly unique in that Latinos weren’t on TV at all in those days, much less Latino Jews. We Latinos are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Santeros, Catholics, Protestants, Scientologists, and whatever else. This variety of religious practice in the Latino community is never represented on TV or movies. Except for Juan Epstein. So long Robert. May God accept your note.
Via Houston Chronicle.