It’s been more than 40 years since Welcome Back, Kotter made Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs a household name, but he’s still often recognized as his television character, Freddie “Boom, Boom” Washington. “People still come up and say Boom Boom, or Joe Jackson, or Cochise from Cooley High,” confides Lawrence, 67, to Closer. “I know [Kotter] was a high point, but the thing that really gets me is when I see young children who are really into it. They’re finding it on YouTube or DVD or one of the older channels, and that blows my mind!”
Of course, Larry, as his friends and family call him, hasn’t been sitting idle since his days with the Sweathogs. He’s currently starring as patriarch Cameran Sanders on A House Divided, a role that earned Larry a 2021 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Daytime Fiction Program. He is also a writer, director and producer, as well as a father and grandfather.
Did you grow up wanting to be an actor?
“As a kid, I was always putting on shows for my school. I was very into ventriloquism: I had my Jerry Mahoney doll and Howdy Doody puppets. I put on shows, not knowing it would springboard me into the future.”
When did you start taking acting seriously?
“Once I was out of high school. I had won some scholarships to go to college for art, but I wanted to try the professional acting thing. [My family] all thought I was nuts — and I probably was! But in that year’s time, I landed bit roles in things like Death Wish and Claudine. Then Cooley High happened and then Welcome Back, Kotter. So, it happened very quickly.”
Can you share any memories of filming Kotter?
“Kotter is something very special in my life. It’s sentimental, because a lot of people are gone now — Bobby Hegyes, Ron Palillo, Marcia Strassman, Johnny White. It’s just Gabe [Kaplan], John [Travolta] and I now. You know, we were all actors, and it was our job, but we were all friends, too. What was lucky about us in the Welcome Back, Kotter years is that we became a family.”
Who were you closest to?
“By far, John Travolta and I were the closest. We hung out daily, double-dating and all that stuff. For the first year we filmed, John didn’t have a television, so he would come to my house and watch TV! And when I did Roots, the night that came on, we went up to Marcia Strassman’s house and we watched me on Roots together.”
Do you still keep in touch with John and Gabe?
“We don’t see each other often, but there’s an instant connection. I reached out to John when he lost his wife [Kelly Preston]. And Gabe recently wrote a movie about his life called Lucky Feinstein. He had a reading of it, and of course I showed up!”
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for A House Divided. Will you be back for a fourth season?
“Yes, I am really looking forward to season 4. It is really deep for me, and I am very involved and very emotional.”
Do you still live in Hollywood?
“I did for many years, but now I’m out by the water in Long Beach. It’s different for me because I’m a city boy. The New York never left me! Anytime I’m going into Hollywood, I call it going into town.”
How many grandchildren do you have?
“I have four. One is in New York, and the other three are in Vegas. In a few weeks, I am going out there to see the baby — well, she’ll be 11 years old, but I call her the baby.”
It sounds like family means a lot to you.
“Yes, family is No. 1. I still make visits to New York City as often as I can. We have a family day — it’s unofficial, but we go to some restaurant and every relative we can think of shows up. Before you know it, there are 40 or 50 people. [Laughs] And I get the wonderful opportunity to pay for the meal!”
Ha! Well, you’ve clearly done a lot of things right! Do you have a life lesson you can share?
“For me, things are simple. You have to keep something sacred, and you have to have integrity. That might sound corny, but I absolutely believe that your word really has to have meaning. And keep it simple by having the people that you care about and love the most — family and good friends — closest to you.”
What are you proudest of in your career?
“The most fun I ever had in my life working on a project was Welcome Back, Kotter. In the four and a half years we worked on that show, we were all the same. We were all New York actors in our 20s, and kind of learning television together. We depended on each other, which gave us all a lifelong bond. That was the most fun.”
And what’s been your most challenging role?
“The most diverse role was playing Joe Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream. What a legacy! That family is music royalty — whom I personally knew for many, many years. So being able to attain that role and play it was trippy and exciting but also challenging, because that script was the size of a phone book!”
Do you have any regrets?
“The reality is that actors can have regrets — that’s just who they are — but to me, it’s just tiring that way. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. My mother would call me stubborn. I’m like anyone else: you strive for the best and put yourself forward. But to sit back and live in regret or be upset about not getting a part, it becomes stupid to me. You just move on.”
Do you think you will ever retire?
“Oh, no! Retirement is never going to happen. Retire for what? There’s no retirement at all, you just get yourself into other areas, which I’ve done. I started as an actor, and now I’m directing, producing and writing. I’m a musician as well. You just keep graduating or reinventing yourself. For me, quitting, that would be a dud! What are you going to do? Sit around and talk like, ‘I remember back in 1975?’ So, I just go forward and look forward to every day.”