Ron Palillo assumed a role that took "geek" and made it ALMOST chic, and, most certainly, endearing! He managed to convert that role into a recurring feature and dominant part of the cast, with his scene-chewing, facial mugging and a decidedly unbelievable, yet, somehow tolerable--- and hysterical--- laugh!
Here was a young, unlikely, leading man who took advantage of the casting call that seems made for him! And while he was a clown and the butt of merciless, but good-natured, ribbing from the other characters in the extremely popular "Welcome Back Kotter" sitcom of the 70s... he was so talented that the producers gave him leave to play "dramatic" on occasion. And well-played it was. I seem to remember a time when he was the victim of an unrequited crush on a girl on the show and played it rather convincingly.
Ron Palillo stood on stage with a slew of very attractive male and female co-stars, specifically cast as the malaprop, goofy, nerd (with a heart of gold).
It was because I knew him! Not that I KNEW him, knew him... but more that I recognized him!
i loved him, because I saw me. At a time in my life where I was starved for positive television images of myself, as a man of color... and certainly devoid of anyone who was "like" me--- there he was! He was there, in living color. He was me. You see, even then, at the age of nine, I knew that Ron Palillo was gay. In my mind, by extension then, so was Arnold Horshack! Are you following me?
It was never promoted as such, but from the first episode, I knew he was "family". It's much like when you look at a family album of photos, you can always spot your kin. A cousin you've never, ever met, looks so familiar and related, that you aren't sure whether to shriek in recognition, or to run and hide in fear of discovery. At the age of nine, i didn't expect a PARADE... but I never hid. I didn't have to. I was never discussed in that light. Neither was Horshack. It was just something that people knew. There wasn't a need to discuss it. And that was just fine with me--- at the time. Thanks to this production... i was able to be a connoisseur of multi-cultural men.
Even at the age of nine, I certainly had mega-crushes on all the male cast members (and even a few of the ladies--- though Mr. Woodman never did a thing FOR me, since I wasn't into Bears or fossils then--- despite rapidly becoming one now!!!!!!!!). I guess that speaks to being "born that way". ALL of them! Epstein, Washington, the red-headed jock that never said anything... it was a smorgasbord of hotties that I never had to explain or discuss because they were broadcast right into my house on a top-rated situation comedy! My parents didn't have a clue what went on in my little mind! Even as we all watched at family television time (after homework and after dinner)!
The slight, and slightly annoying, yet endearing, Palillo (who wore jeans that were far too tight and far more revealing than they should have been for a "teen" show), showed me, for the very first time--- that one accursed with the affliction of "gay", of which no one ever spoke, was respected, loved and even protected by the "straights" in his class--- in spite of the kind of rough, good-natured hazing he got from them all. I wonder if Mr. Palillo ever really knew the positive and comforting effect he had on young boys all over the nation, who knew who they were, but not that they were not alone. I sure hope he did! He was a hero to me! He was, whether discussed or not, a clear and rare representation of a gay male on television for the world to see (remember Billy Crystal's, ground-breaking role (Jodie Dallas) on "Soap"?)!
I was there to see it all... even before I was a teenager! But I knew from the age of six... so it was no big "whoop"!
What saddens me most, is that Mr. Palillo felt it necessary to stay closeted--- and fundamentally died that way. There are some who were surprised to learn of his personal orientation. For others, an open secret.
Much like a certain actor, recently caught kissing (or others telling about) other men in his life... or another actor who is apt to sue the pants off of anyone leveling such a claim... or a certain silver-coiffed geek/stud who recently came out publicly as a gay man... their reasons are their own, and it isn't my place to judge. However, how sad and deprived and paranoid and ashamed one must feel to choose that path of depriving one's self of authenticity and openness in living one's life? It makes me wonder. It also makes me weep.
I never met Mr. Palillo (though I seem to remember some involvement in preparing for his arrival at a theatre in NJ for a guest appearance), but one of my dearest (actor, playwright, director, casting agent) friends knew him pretty well, I believe! I wonder how my friend is coping with this loss.
I wonder how Mr. Palillo's invisible life-partner, Joseph Gramm, is coping with the loss of his partner of more than forty years. Admittedly, I have not checked any vital records to know with certainty if they were legally married anywhere. I am hoping that they were. Had they been legally married, I suspect Mr. Gramm's options would have been iron-clad.
Life is too short for charades, or hatred, my dear ones. It is the twenty-first century. After all the generations-old rhetoric about how "the gays"--- living their lives and loving those whom they choose--- will lead to the arrival of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? It is, forgive me, bullshit.
"The Gays" have been loving and living on earth for centuries--- no! Millennia--- often with ancient societal approval, sometimes not. And the overarching fact remains that--- if the apocalypse was going to happen so immediately and furiously and irrevocably... why is it that we are all still here--- for centuries--- and the sun, moon and stars continue to perform their glorious, elliptical ballet in our amazing galaxy.
I have the courage to be who I am because of all those who came before me--- even those who never hoisted a banner or a flag or marched in a parade. Mr. Palillo was far more than an entertainer to me. In my eyes, he was a performer who, for good or ill, chose to live his romantic life discretely and get on with the job at hand! Applying and developing his craft, making others smile and living a life of dignity!
My prayers go out to his siblings, loved ones and friends... and especially the students whose lives he enhanced!
Thank you for everything you've given me, Sir! Here's a little song that pops into my head when I think about you and your humble, quiet, understated path.
It's a ditty that every good Thespian--- of a certain age--- has belted within the walls of cabaret watering holes like "The Duplex" and "Don't Tell Mama"! This writer once had the opportunity to Conduct it for a run of the show. I know it well and adore it.
When I think of you, which I often do with great fondness and gratitude, I think of you as one, definite, and singular, sensation!
Addio, Signore! Ciao!