Former Sweathog co-creates Web film about high school dropouts in Venice
Do you remember the 1970s television show Welcome Back Kotter? One of the “Sweathogs,” Epstein, is alive and well and all grown up. Bob Hegyes played this character, one of several unruly remedial high school students, known as juvenile delinquents in those days.
Through the years, Bob has had a successful acting career performing off Broadway, on Broadway, on the Los Angeles stage and on numerous episodic television shows. He also starred as a series regular portraying undercover Detective Manny Esposito on the 1980’s television show Cagney and Lacey.
During his early career Bob received extra education in the art of filmmaking. While doing the pilot of Welcome Back Kotter he became intrigued with directing. After the first year he expressed his desire to direct. Executive producer James Komack told him that they would talk about it, but, only after a year of being in the editing room.
“My editor was Andy Ackerman, who did a lot of the Seinfelds,” says Bob. “If you learn editing, you learn where everything is assembled, you see the whole picture — you know what you need on the set, what you really don’t need, where the camera is going to be, what is going to be shown.”
In the ’90s, Bob was on board with director James Burrows for two seasons — to learn camera film and to learn tape.
“It was a real privilege to follow the maestro around,” he says.
Although Bob was inspired at an early age by his mother through exposure to Broadway musicals and classic movies to pursue an acting career, he went to college and got a degree in secondary education. He was substitute teaching before he was on Broadway or started his television role as Epstein.
“The irony is, on Welcome Back Kotter I was the technical advisor,” he says. “Because here I am — I was just teaching in high school and now I’m playing a high school kid.”
Several years ago, Bob started substitute teaching at Venice High School. It was at this time that he and his longtime girlfriend, artist Cynthia Wylie, decided to give back to the community.
“Cindy and I have been talking about being philanthropic with our lives,” he says. “Of course the first thing I think about is education.”
Another part of the decision was where to do it.
“We decided to be philanthropic in our own backyard because I’ve always been a neighborhood guy,” says Bob. “I have great allegiances towards relationships, whether it’s my high school — I wore my high school jacket on Cagney and Lacey, I wore it at home, now my son wears it — or college; I wear my college T-shirts and sweatshirts and go back there to lecture all the time.
“This is my ‘hood’. This is where I spend my time and this is where I foster my relationships. It’s in my heart.”
College was Rowan University in New Jersey. When Bob was a senior he had a speech class with freshman Mark Antonio Grant, now Southern District director in Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office. It was Mark that he called to discuss his idea for a project as a way to give back to the community.
Taking all his experience — acting as a juvenile delinquent and as a law enforcement officer, editing and directing, being a parent with Cindy to four teenagers, and being a high school teacher — Bob, with his partner, feature film writer Craig Titley, has created a new series for the Internet revolving around a retired New York Police Department gang cop turned Venice juvenile probation officer with seven Venice High School delinquents who must report to him.
The Venice Walk is shot as a documentary, with dark comedic overtones, filmed entirely in Venice. The teenagers are on probation for such crimes as grand theft-auto, credit card fraud, computer hacking, possession of drugs and felony assault gang-banging.
“Write what you know” is what Bob quotes when describing how he came up with the R-rated Kotter.
Information on The Venice Walk can be found at www.the venicewalk.com.
With Mark’s input, a decision was made to donate a percentage of the budget for each episode to a high school dropout-prevention program where Mark is on the board of directors. “He knows I’m at Venice High School, and Bud Jacobs, the former principal, is putting together this program,” says Bob. “What a perfect marriage.”
When Bud was promoted from principal at Venice High School, he went to the Harbor Area, at that time District 8, as local Los Angeles Unified School District director for high school programs and, then, was promoted again, as director for high school programs in the downtown office.
Now, after retirement, Bud has become the executive director of CISLAW (Communities in Schools Los Angeles West), the newest California affiliate of CIS (Communities in Schools), recently cited by Worth Magazine as one of the top 100 nonprofit organizations in the United States. It claims to be the largest dropout prevention organization in the country and serves approximately one million “at-risk” students struggling to stay in school and graduate.
Only in existence for several months, Communities in Schools Los Angeles West is housed in the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) Beverly Hills office.
“There’s a lot of entertainment money that has been backing this organization nationally,” says Bud. “They [the CAA Foundation] were interested in getting a Communities in Schools affiliate on the Westside.”
One hundred ninth-grade students with a 1.0 to 1.1 grade point average in two high schools — Venice and Hamilton — have already been identified by Bud and will participate in the program when it starts in September.
“These are the kids who are not going to promote into the tenth grade,” he says. “The data shows that the largest dropout rate is between the ninth and tenth grade. So we have to provide these kids with some hope, some dreams, some skills, some ideas why they want to stay in school and catch up to their class and graduate in four years.
“I think, with the entertainment industry and the community organizations that we’ll be working with, and the governmental agencies that will be helping us, we can do that” — and of course with the help of Bob Hegyes’s The Venice Walk, telling real-life stories based on real-life people and situations just like those of the students, who could be on their way to dropping out.