October 30, 2014 7:02 AM EDT

Marcia Strassman, who died Oct. 24 at age 66, was a girl from New Jersey, but when she auditioned for the role of Midwesterner Julie Kotter, you would have thought she was from Nebraska. She had to play a fish out of water in New York City, and she did it perfectly. I should have known then and there how great she was.

Midway through the run of Welcome Back, Kotter, Marcia was fed up with being just the straight woman for jokes. She was a tremendous actress, and she wanted to do more. After the last episode, I didn’t see her for about 15 years. But our kids wound up going to the same school, and when I was in the schoolyard one day, I heard “Gabriel!” I knew immediately who it was, and from that point on we saw each other often.

Marcia never really got that one dramatic role that would have let her show her chops. But she had so much talent. One day I was listening to a book on tape about Warren Buffett, narrated by a woman. I thought, “Wow, this woman really understands business.” When I got to my destination, I looked and saw that it was Marcia. It was just one example of her versatility–and it was a tremendous job.

Kaplan created and starred in Welcome Back, Kotter

This appears in the November 10, 2014 issue of TIME.

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