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Robert With President Ronald Regan in 1987.

president reganI met President Regan because we were in Washington D.C. playing against the Washington Redskins for an Alzheimer’s charity event. As it happens, out of everyone there playing this game… Michael Keaton, Matthew Broderick, Mark Harmon… he turned out to gravitate to me because he was a huge “Welcome Back, Kotter” fan. He was quoting me episodes and quoting me Epstein’s notes. His favorite was, “Roses are blue, Violets are red, I’m sorry to announce, my Grandma’s dead.”

After he shook my hand, a few moments later, a Secret Serviceman came up to me and said, “The President would like to see you in the Oval Office.” I mean here’s all these guys that are bigger stars than me, and here’s Ronnie… a Kotter freak.

I was escorted into the Oval Office and sitting there by myself. I remember thinking… “Jack Kennedy!!! let’s blockade the Russians!!! Harry Truman… let’s drop the big one!!! Abraham Lincoln… let’s free the slaves!!!”

Ronnie came in with two Secret Servicemen and said, “What would you like for lunch?” Being at the White House and being able to order anyyyyyything I’d like… I ordered an Italian sub sandwich with everything, including the Italian dressing. Ronny ordered the same thing… hold the mayo. I immediately offered that I loved, “Bedtime with Bonzo.” “How was it working with a monkey?” Mr. President.

“The same way it is working with Congress,” he laughed. “They need constant rehearsal, and you can never trust them when they get on camera.” Within moments, ten people burst into the Oval Office and the President’s phone started ringing. Two Secret Servicemen whisked me out and joined me with my partners saying that the President had urgent business. I asked about my sub sandwhich. They asked which hotel I was staying at. I said, “The Four Seasons.” They said they would have it delivered.

I turned on the news that night in my hotel room only to discover that Russia had shot down an American passenger jet, accusing us of spying. There was a U.S. House of Representative on board. I never got my sub sandwich. (Who’s gonna deny it… the man’s got Alzheimer’s).

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Robert on ‘Mom & Dad’

mom & dadStephen Hegyes and Marie Cocozza. I miss them very much. My mother was instrumental in me getting involved in the theater. From the time she saw “West Side Story,” on Broadway in 1958 she started collecting (along with Frank Sinatra), Broadway show albums. I remember from the night she saw the play, she told me she went down to the East Village to have drinks and dinner after the show. I’m sure, knowing my mother, she went there to check out this new generation called, the Beats. When she came back, she told me there were Beatniks outside the restaurant and they poked fun of the “squares” from New Jersey. It was really the first time I heard the term Beatnik and I haven’t put down Jack Kerouac’s, “On the Road” since. Anyway… back to me…

My mother would make me sing along with Frank Sinatra albums and other Broadway musicals at the time, but incessantly made me sing “Maria” from “Westside Story.” It was through her encouragement, squeezed in between baseball and football practice and what little studying I did, that I was involved in the high school theater productions.

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Robert the Drummer & Passion for Drum Samples.

Incredible Drum Samples download here

God Bless America and the almighty dollar, Free drum samples rule the world. How much fun could a guy have? My friend, Jerry Rannow said, on the night the show was premiering, “Say goodbye to your anonymity.” I couldn’t even spell the word, let alone know what it meant. He was right. The day after the show aired, I couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, “Hey, Epstein, I loved your show.” Honestly, I didn’t have a grip on who I was as Robert Hegyes yet, let alone this Epstein guy. He was just a character I created, and now carry with me to this very day as my alter ego and magic drummer.

The show was very similar to doing Broadway… two live shows every Friday night with 500 people there plus a live drummer loaded with the best free available drum samples out there (And we were all Broadway actors). I loved it when the likes of Lucille Ball, Liza Minelli and Groucho Marx would show up to watch us perform. Anything could happen, and it usually did. You had four talented actors, competing against themselves for the spotlight and yet supporting each other like brothers. These guys were the best. If I never did anything after Welcome Back, Kotter, I was blessed. My life exceeded my wildest dreams. Jimmy Komack was the puppeteer. I always used to tell Gabe Kaplan, “If you behave yourself, someday you’ll get your own show loaded with the best drum sounds.” But truly, the inmates were running the asylum and that was John, Larry, Ron and I.

They tried many female sweathogs: Lisa Mordente, Melanie Howler, former playmate, and Deborah Lee Scott. The writers tried very hard to work a girl into the show. Deborah Lee was really the best of the lot… Hotsie, Totsie… who thought she was pregnant by all of the guys. But needless to say, none of the woman worked out because the writing staff only wanted to write for the four guys and the woman beat didn’t play. Even in the pilot episode they tried a woman as Vinne’s girlfriend and she never made it past that show. And believe me, we would have loved having a cute girl around but the writers kept writing all the woman out, even when the network asked for a girl sweathog.

One of the perks of starring in a hit television series was not only the free drum samples but the BABES. It didn’t help that I was the only cast member that was married. Needless to say, the combination of all the above led to the demise of my marriage. But, what a way to go!!!!!!!!!! (Sorry, Mary, I still love you and you know it. I’m just a weak, weak, man. You deserved better than me).

The Marx Brothers had a big effect on the comedy we were making. We started off as “The Blackboard Jungle,” and eventually became “Duck Soup.” The network (ABC) was really angry that Jimmy Komack presented the show as a fun high school romp, but the script was written as a hard-edged, drama comedy. We were even banned in Boston on the premiere night because it was too controversial. Just the fact that a black and an Hispanic (me) were in the same show was too touchy due to race relations there.

So Jimmy came to us during the last week of rehearsals and said, “Please dear God guys….. be FUNNY!” And I said, why don’t you just let us be the Marx Brothers… wacky and funny instead of frightening sounding our thundering drum sounds.” The next day we got pages that Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, and Chico could have done. The show was called “The Debate.” We immediately climbed into the top ten by the second week, and didn’t leave for three years.

drum samplesBy year four, things had gone south. Freddie Prinze, who always had the top samples a drummer could have, had shot himself. “Chico & the Man” was one of Jimmy’s shows. The power struggle was on. John had become a movie star. Gabe refused to show up because Jimmy Komack had fired his (Gabe’s) writing staff and hired his own (from the “Carol Burnett Show”). And, John had only contractually agreed to act in nine episodes. Without Kotter and Barbarino in half the episodes, ABC said that this was not the show they had bought. It was cancelled. Larry, Ron, John and I are all friends to this day.

If you were to go to the Museum of Radio and Television for the audition tapes of Welcome Back, Kotter and listen to the free drum samples, you would find a young and beautiful Farrah Fawcett auditioning for Gabe’s wife against Marcia Strassman pictured here.

I also remember Gloria Swanson, the great silent movie actress, auditioning for the role of the school superintendent. I sat with her for fifteen minutes beforehand picking her brain about her and Bill Holden in the classic film, “Sunset Boulevard.” I was so excited about the possibility of performing with Gloria Swanson. Again, the producers made another choice.

George Carlin did an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a disc jockey at a radio station. It’s a friendship I keep to this day. I just saw him perform a few weeks ago at the Comedy Store. He is the Godfather of comedy today.

Groucho and Lucy used to come and watch the taping of our show. Groucho was scheduled to appear in an episode of the show and blast his crazy hip hop drum kits. I approached Groucho when he was at NCB visiting in 1976. He recognized me from Kotter because he was a fan. He said, “You remind me of my brothers… you remind me of Chico. You’re very funny.” I asked him if he’d like to do an episode. He said, “Yes.” His words of departure were, “I used to be young once, just like you.” I arranged for Groucho to do the opening tease of the show where Gabe was doing a Groucho imitation, and Groucho was to walk down the hall and say, “That’s the worst imitation I ever heard.” Unfortunately, Erin Fleming, who was his caretaker, refused to let him perform right before the take because his blood pressure was too high. I remember him right before they pulled him away screaming, “I can do this. I can do this.” It broke my heart. To this day I have his nameplate that was on his dressing room door. Grouch Marx… my hero, the best drummer out there.

Lucy (Lucille Ball) came to several episodes during the second season of Welcome Back, Kotter. She simply enjoyed the fun humor of the show. I would sit with her when I wasn’t on and just hold her hand. She would say to me, “This is my kind of comedy, and they’re not doing enough of it today.”

I grew up reading Mad Magazine and laughing my ass off at all these new digital drum samples. Alfred E. Neuman for President, was my motto. I still think he could beat George W. Bush to this day on the drums. One day someone walked in and said, “Hey look, you guys are on the cover of Mad Magazine.” Forget TV Guide, People, and the National Enquirer or even the real drum samples collection. I knew I had made it.

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Robert on Cagney & Lacey

Robert Cagney1. I got a call from a casting director, Diane Dimeo, who was casting “Cagney & Lacey.” She said, “I think I have something that you’re right for… the part of a gang member whose brother’s been killed by Cagney. Would you come in and read for it? It’s a really good part.”

So I practiced real hard for the part. At the end of the scene, I had to throw money in her face. So I tore up little pieces of green paper, stuffed them in my pocket, memorized my lines and went to the audition. I’m giving a great audition, and while I’m doing it, I’m thinking, how can I make this better? I decided that after I threw the money at her, I would spit in her face… well not actually spit but pretend to by making a spitting sound. We got to the end of the scene and I took the green confetti out of my pocket and I threw it in Diane’s face. This was in front of the Producer & Director. To put the button on the scene, I go to make a spitting sound, but, unfortunately, I actually spit in her face.

Here is this very gracious woman, who I had been bugging to come in because I really wanted to do the show… and I spit in her face. She said, “You must never, ever spit on the casting director. You may go now.”

I walked out of there thinking that I’d never work in this town again. Word will spread. Hegyes is nuts. Two weeks later, I got another call from Diane Dimeo. “They’re adding a new character to the show. If you promise not to spit on me, I’ll audition you.”

2. Again, I prepared very well. I realized that this would be a second hit television show I could be involved in. I looked at it like two NBA Championships in a row. I didn’t shave for two days and wore the dirtiest, grubbiest clothes I had, since this guy was an undercover street cop. I read for Barney Rosensweig and Diane again. At the end of this wonderful audition, (and I didn’t spit), Barney looked at me and said, “You’ve got the part.” Right there.

I remember driving home on the freeway, and I burst into tears thinking, I wish my mom were alive for this. Two days later, I was co-starring in a show that had just won an Emmy for Best Television Drama, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.

cagney3. I was convinced, and rightfully so, that I was performing with the two best actresses in television, Sharon Gless and Tyne Daley. I already had a B.A. in acting and I found myself in the midst of going for my M.F.A. just to stay on the screen with them. I learned more from acting with those two women than I have to this very day. I especially like being pinched in the butt a lot, which is something they had a penchant for doing to all their male co-stars.

The character they created for me was wonderful. He was the humor in the precinct, where up to that point, there was none. Detective Esposito always had some kind of scam going on. He was either scalping Knick tickets for twice the price, or selling hand held fans at a ridiculous markup during a heat wave.

The first year was great. At the end of the season, the writers called all the co-stars into the room to discuss ideas for episodes for the following season. To my delight, all the other characters wanted to do a show with Esposito.

4. Over the summer, one of the writers called to tell me he was developing a story where terrorists take over the precinct and Esposito is held hostage. Coincidentally, that summer, I went to see my cousin, Jon Bon Jovi perform in Irvine with his band. He unplugged his guitar and handed it to me and said, “Come on stage and play the finale with us. Just come on stage and pretend like you’re playing the guitar.” I was introduced to 15,000 screaming girls and I realized that I had missed my profession. Heather Locklear was there at the time visiting Richie Sambora. When I came off stage she said, “Bobby, I didn’t realize you play the guitar.” I told her that it was just one of the many things she didn’t know about me.

A week later I put six inch extensions in my hair and had it lightened and straightened, and showed back up at work. I was thinking that I was taking this character up to a new level. My first day, the writer that had written my episode came to me and said, “We’ve got some bad news… Barney isn’t going to do your hostage episode.” I asked what had happened. I was told that Barney had gotten wind of everyone’s desire to do episodes with me, and he said that the show is called Cagney & Lacey, not Cagney, Lacey & Esposito.

cagney 7What I realized later is that his future wife, Sharon, was being beaten out for an Emmy every year by Tyne. Barney was determined to get Sharon an Emmy. In what turned out to be the final year of the show, twenty two episodes focused on Sgt. Cagney and her alcoholism, her AA meetings, her father, and her other relationships. Even Tyne in private threw up her hands and said, “I don’t know where this is going. I don’t think I want to do the show anymore. I’m tired and I don’t need this.”

Everyone’s dialogue was relegated to saying, “It’s line four for you Cagney…” That was the show’s last year. Sharon got her Emmy.

5. The most lasting relationship that came out of the series for me, (I had known Tyne for years before she ever got the series), was Marty Kove. We just had a wonderful chemistry together. In the Quiz Show episode, where we dress up like fruit to expose a corrupt game show operator, we did nothing but laugh at each other. We even talked about getting a spin off together… The Fruit Brothers. Marty and I had a chance to provide a lot of the comic relief in the precinct together, and I still enjoy him today.

Marty and I traveled around the country together playing baseball in the charity organization, Hollywood Allstars. We played in almost all the major league ballparks, which completed a longtime fantasy for me. Playing catcher in Yankee Stadium was one of the highlights of my life. We played with Mark Harmon, Michael Keaton, Matthew Broderick, Lou Diamond Philips, and Kevin Costner. We raised money for various charities such as multiple sclerosis, Make a Wish Foundation, and even the Oklahoma City bombing victims.

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Robert & The Theater

1. As Chico Marx in the National Touring Production of, “A Night With Groucho.”

TheaterI was always a Marx Brother’s fan from the time I was young in the 60s. I remember watching all their films in black and white. A lot of my friends were Three Stooges fans, and I have a real appreciation for the Three Stooges, but honestly, television was saturated with them. They had a television series versus Marx Brother’s movies, which were… well, movies. The way I saw it, The Three Stooges were great physical comedians. The Marx Brothers were great cerebral comedians.

I always had an affinity for Chico. The character of Epstein from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” was modelled after Chico… the wheeler-dealer, skirt chasing, scam artist. In general, I was always able to relate to them culturally as well. They were immigrant Jews, and I was an immigrant Italian. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo were intellectuals. Their mother was such a powerful force in their life, as my mother was… she (Minnie) was their first manager. They all played the piano and took music lessons, and they were all juvenile delinquents; I could definitely relate.

Sometimes on Broadway, they would exchange roles. Chico would play Groucho if he didn’t want to go on. They were nicknamed on a train while on tour in the thirties. Groucho was nicknamed Groucho because he was such a grouchy guy. Chic-o was always chasing babes. That’s why he was named Chico. (Like chick-o, not chico). Harpo was a brilliant harp player (he also worked for the CIA during World War II). Zeppo was named Zeppo because he always used Zippo lighters. Gummo wore gum shoes. Gummo fell out of the act to get married. After the Paramount contract was completed, Zeppo stopped performing and became their agent. I could go on, and on, and on about their history, but let’s get on to my tour…

2. I hadn’t heard from Gabe in years. I was busy writing my screenplays. He called one day and asked me if I’d like to play Chico Marx in the L.A. debut of “An Evening With Groucho,” and you owe me a hundred bucks. I did owe him a hundred bucks from something six years before.

I knew Gabe had done a tryout of the show at Pepperdine University, and a very fine actor, Mike Tucci, had played Chico. I asked Gabe why Mike Tucci wasn’t doing the part. He said, “I need somebody to torture… and Mike just doesn’t get it.”

I said, “If you pay me enough, I’ll let you torture me.” Gabe is a renowned cheapskate. But the opportunity for him to have me to torture as he did in Kotter, was too much for him to resist. So he paid my price and I was on board.

We opened at the Westwood Playhouse to rave reviews, and had a great two month run. I became close with Arthur Marx (one of the writers along with Bob Fischer) during that time. On opening night, Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, and Harpo’s wife (they called her Mrs. Harpo), Gummo’s relations, and Zeppo’s ex-wife, Barbara Marx (who was married to Frank Sinatra at the time, attended. Their consensus was, Uncle Chico was alive again. I felt like I was channeling Chico’s spirit. He was my favorite Marx Brother, and I just wanted to have sex with every woman I saw. But I didn’t.

theater 23. After the great reviews in L.A., the plan was to continue to work on the show while we toured the country over the summer. We took it on the road everywhere from Calgary, Canada to Cape Cod. I had one of the greatest times of my life, seeing the country and playing a character I loved.

While touring with the show, I had an opportunity to be always looking out at the audience. What I realized, was that we were getting a young college crowd. The Marx Brothers material was still viable and had mass appeal. At the time, I used to think, what a shame there’s not one more Marx Brother’s movie… something we’d never seen… to give to a whole new generation. It was then, I conceived writing a new film, “A DAY AT THE MOVIES, The Lost Marx Brother’s Film.”

The Movie could be done using three modern-day actors as the brothers. The verissimilitude takes over and after one minute, the audience would be willing to accept that this is really them. So with my writing partner, Jerry Rannow, a former Welcome Back, Kotter writer and producer, we set about writing the screenplay. I swear the guys were in the room with us while we did it. George S. Kaufman would have been proud. The story is… the guys take over a failing movie studio owned by Mrs. Van Arsdale, (Margaret Dumont).

After it was written, I sent it over to Arthur Marx for his feedback and blessing. Arthur immediately called me back (he sounds just like Groucho, his dad). He said, “This is a Marx Brother’s movie. But we have a problem… they’re all dead.” I explained my concept to him and he immediately got on board.

theater 34. George Miller (of “Mad Max” and “Babe” fame) and his partner in Kennedy Miller films, Doug Mitchell, optioned the script. They wanted to raise the money independently. However, after one year, they were unsuccessful raising the $1 million, and the project came back to me. I subsequently went to my friend, Peter Seaman, who did Roger Rabbit. He had loved the project and told me if it ever fell through, he’d like to do it.

Peter took the project to Universal Studios, where he had a deal to make more films. Together we went to meet Casey Silver and he loved the script. When we told him George Miller wanted to direct it, he said, “If you bring me George Miller, I’ll greenlight the project.” He said that he had another project he wanted George to do.

When George Miller got wind from his agent that Casey Silver wanted to do the movie, he called me at two o’clock in the morning from a Greek Island he was vacationing on. He essentially begged me not to let the project go to Universal, because he said that he would never in this lifetime or the next work for Casey Silver.

George asked me for another six months, and promised me he would raise the money.

I then went back to my friend, Peter, told him of my conversation with George, and that I believed in him. “Please forgive, me,” I said. Peter gracefully bowed out. Within the month, the front page of daily variety read, “George Miller to direct ‘Lorenzo’s Oil'” for Universal Pictures. George wouldn’t take my calls afterwards.

Danny Devito’s Jersey Films is currently developing a new Marx Brother’s film biography. I wish them nothing but success. Hopefully the renewed interest will help me get my movie made.

 

 

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Welcome!

Welcome to the Robert Hegyes Official Fan web site. Find out about the life and career of Actor Robert Hegyes, including “Welcome Back Kotter” in the role of Juan Epstein, plus roles in “Cagney and Lacey,” more TV shows and films are on this site

 

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