Archive for August, 2012

About seven years ago, a dear friend of mine and I sat at a little bar on Ninth Avenue in the West 40s one night, knocking back a few and having some laughs, when he suddenly said to me, “You know you’re my favorite journalist of all time, right? Well, when the time comes, I want you to write my obituary.” I said, “Oh, honey, STOP!! Don’t be morbid!! And anyway, you’re gonna bury us all!!” He said, “No, no, I won’t. People might remember who I am, maybe for a little while, but I want you to promise me that you’ll write my obituary when the time comes.” So I said, “Fine. Should I ask if you have a title for this little opus I’m supposed to write?” He said, “Yes. I want you to call it Requiem for a Paperweight.” And we laughed and ordered another round and smoked a few more cigarettes as usual, and I figured that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. He died this morning. And writing this article may well be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but I’m keeping the title as per his wishes.

The world has lost a wonderful gentleman named Ron Palillo. Most people probably know him best as the iconic character Arnold Horshack from the megahit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC for four seasons. Yes, he of the signature gravelly laugh, dorky clothes, comical Brooklyn accent and explanation of his moniker (“I’ll have you know that Horshack is a very old and RESPECTED name. It means, ‘The cattle are dying.'”) Whether he was joining a religious cult, becoming a figure not unlike Peter Finch in the movie Network or merely hanging out with his fellow Sweathogs, Horshack was to the 1970s what Urkel was to the 80s or Screech was to the 90s, in pop-culture parlance. And millions will never forget him or the joy he brought to the cultural landscape.

But I don’t want to talk about Horshack right now. I want to talk about Ron, the man I was blessed to know so well for over twenty years, and the joy he gave me personally as a friend.

In 1990 I got my first job in journalism, writing reviews and features for a now-defunct magazine called Night & Day. One feature of which I was particularly proud was an interview with my dear friend Shirley Stoler, which gave me great pleasure to write. So a few days after it was published, I was hanging out at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row having a drink at the bar when all of a sudden this guy came over and started staring at me. A little bit short, not a bad body and really luminescent skin. He looked an awful lot like Ron Palillo, but something was different; maybe he’d had his nose bobbed or something. So I smiled at him. He said, “Do you happen to be Andrew Martin?” I said yes, I was. “Oh, I love your writing so much! I was just reading your interview with Shirley Stoler the other day and I absolutely adore her. My name’s Ron Palillo.” I nearly spit my drink out of my nose. “I THOUGHT that was you!! HI!! Oh, I’m so pleased to meet you!! HUGE fan!! So you’re visiting New York, then?” By this point his lover Joey came over and joined us, Ron made introductions and explained that no, he and Joe were living in New York now, they’d just moved back and gotten a place in Chelsea. By three or four drinks later, the three of us were already great friends. They literally poured me into a cab to take me home to Queens after I gave them my phone number and they gave me theirs, and we all promised to see each other soon. Now, everybody knows how it works in entertainment circles in New York; you always promise you’ll see each other again and nine times out of ten you don’t. But this, I learned, is why nobody should have ever underestimated Ron Palillo.

About three weeks later, on a Friday night, I took my buddy Jim Loftus to see someone’s cabaret act at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street (I have absolutely no recollection whose cabaret act it was, so I apologize to whomever they are and I hope I gave you a nice review). We went downstairs after the show to sit by the piano and hear my friend Peter Gloo play and my other friend Elaine Brier sing, when all of a sudden Ron and Joe walked in. As soon as they saw me, they made a beeline for us. “Andrew! Why haven’t you called? You promised!! Never mind, it’s nice to see you now. May we join?” Of course I said yes and introduced them to Jim. Who, once they were seated, said, “Am I dreaming this? Did you honestly just introduce me to Arnold Horshack and now he’s sitting here with us?” I assured him it wasn’t a dream. We all got lit as lords and had a wonderful evening.

So, for at least the next year and longer, I kept in touch with them (I was never quite as friendly with Joe as I was with Ron, but Joe was always very happy to see me wherever it was). In due time, Night & Day Magazine folded, I was then moved over to the New York Native newspaper and then I parted company with them also, and after a few months away from it all except for occasional freelancing at magazines like Details and Lear’s, I started my own magazine, CaB. So I asked Ron if he might possibly be so gracious as to grant me an interview. Believe me, he needed no bidding; he was delighted to know that I’d be writing about him, and invited me to swing by the apartment he and Joe were subletting in Chelsea. It was really a little nothing of a building, a very innocuous brownstone,  and then I got to their apartment and nearly died. It was the most luxurious duplex I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some pretty luxurious duplexes in my day. I said, “You and Joe actually LIVE here? This isn’t a movie set or something?” He said, “Andrew, it’s called being on a hit show for several seasons.”

Then we did the interview. He spoke of growing up in Connecticut and how lonely he was most of the time as a kid, how much he wanted to be a star, how his gravelly laugh as Horshack was actually his father’s death rattle as he lay dying of cancer, how frustrated he’d always been after Kotter because nobody would take him seriously as an actor, and all kinds of other things nobody else could have possibly known about him. Then he showed me his drawings; he’d begun working as an illustrator for children’s books (one in particular, The Red Wings of Christmas, had been written by his dear friend Wesley Eure, who was best known as the star of the Sid/Marty Krofft series “Land of the Lost” and also as the longtime lover of Richard Chamberlain). He also spoke with desperate passion about his best friend, actress Debralee Scott, whom he loved more than life itself. It was an amazing interview and frankly left me more than a bit dazed.

For the next decade, Ron and I continued to have an absolute blast. He and Joe and I had mutual friends in the form of a couple, two wonderful guys named Woody Leatherwood and Larry Scheraldi, who threw the most wonderful parties imaginable at their apartment on West 39th. (By this point, Ron and Joe had taken a new apartment on 49th Street). I recall one night in particular when Ron and I and our other friend Tommy Femia decided to play “The Movie Game” This is where the first person names a movie, the second person names someone who was in that movie, the third person names another movie that person was in, and it just goes around and around until someone can neither name a person or a movie that goes with the subject. The whole point is to be as obscure as possible so you stump the next person. Ron really thought he was gonna get Tommy (the world’s best Judy Garland impersonator) out of the game when, after I named Vigil of the Night as the movie and Ron volunteered the name of Rita Page, Tommy looked at both of us and in his best Garland voice said, “She played my mother in Little Nellie Kelly.” Ron’s jaw dropped to the floor and he said, “That’s it. I’m out of the game. I give up.” It was adorable.

Then, in ’02, my ex-husband and I had four friends from out of town staying with us for Gay Pride Week, and one night after we took everybody to see the Empire State Building, we went to the same bar I mentioned in the first paragraph, on Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th. We were all having a ball, then I got up to go to the bar and get another drink, and who should be standing at the jukebox but Ron. I said, “Oh, no you’re NOT, Ron Palillo!!” He turned around, saw me, came over and gave me a huge hug hello and then joined our table. The guys were absolutely beside themselves that “Andrew knows Arnold Horshack!!”

Ron was an absolute and understandable mess the day Debralee Scott died in 2005. It wasn’t hard to comprehend why; they were as close as brother and sister, and she and he and Joe were always constantly in each others lives. But I’d never seen him so upset and distraught. Hence, the night he insisted on meeting me for drinks at that bar. And also hence why he decided that I should write his obituary.

One of the very last times I spoke to him by phone was after he appeared in the opening number of the TVLand Awards. He said, “I hate that they trotted me out as HIM one more time, but I made a little cash and got to see some old friends. If Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie”)  hadn’t been there I never would have gotten through it. Hey, do you know her?” I said that I most certainly did. He said, “Isn’t she the best? One of the funniest women on earth, and a brilliant actress, outrageously intelligent and the warmest creature you could imagine,” and he just sang her praises for well over a half hour.

Ron and Joe moved to the Palm Beach area a couple of years ago, and while Ron wasn’t particularly happy about it, he was certainly proud of their home. Our very last conversation was a couple of months ago, in Facebook Chat. He was extremely worried that he might have had cancer from all the smoking, he said he’d developed a cough that sounded a lot like his father’s, but that he’d begun seeing a respiratory therapist and that so far was so good. Then this morning, Joe came downstairs, saw Ron clutching his chest, called an ambulance and they set off for the ER, where he died shortly after arriving.

And so here we are tonight. Ron is gone and my heart is aching. But it’s not aching for myself. It’s aching for Joe. It’s aching for his siblings. It’s aching for all the social misfits out there like I was, who knew that in Arnold Horshack we had a friend for life. It’s aching for those people who were ever lucky enough to know him. And by now I’ve lost enough friends to also know that it’s not about all the things we didn’t get to do or having the chance to say a final goodbye, but all the things we DID get to do and all the chances we had to say a hello.

Thus, all there is left to say is one last hello. Rest in peace, my wonderful Paperweight. I love you.

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