In the mid-1970s, ABC introduced a pair of unique comedies that tried to shake things up a little bit. One was the Hal Linden cop sitcom Barney Miller while the other was stand-up comedian Gabe Kaplan’s high school-set Welcome Back, Kotter.
The premise of the latter — which introduced John Travolta to the world — had Gabe playing Gabe Kotter, a teacher with a sense of humor who takes a job at his alma mater, James Buchanan High School, located in Brooklyn, New York. He’s given a classroom of juvenile delinquents known as the Sweathogs, and assigned by school assistant principal Michael Woodman to keep them “contained” until they either drop out or somehow manage to graduate. Instead, Kotter, who was one of the original Sweathogs in his youth, tries to connect with them to make them better people in the process.
It sounds more like a serious drama (going way back, think of Sidney Poitier’s To Sir, With Love), but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This classroom is played for laughs. Welcome Back, Kotter, which ran from 1975-79, was also probably the first time a stand-up comedian took his act and transformed it into a television series. Later, of course, others who did the same thing would include Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tim Allen — among many others. “Kotter is not a show,” Gabe related to People. “It is my life. Kotter is the make-believe teacher I wanted to have in Brooklyn.”
“The original concept of the show,” he explained to Naples Daily News, “in my mind was you have four guys from different ethnic backgrounds and they were best friends. And the characters were with a teacher who cared about his students. That, for some reason, tapped into a pop-culture vein. Everybody accepted the characters for why they were.”
Those characters included Marcia Strassman as Gabe’s wife, Julie (who wouldn’t have much of a presence until later in the show’s run), and then, as the Sweathogs, Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack (he of the distinctive laugh and calling out for attention from Mr. Kotter by shouting, “Ooooh, oooh, oooh!”), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as the too-cool-for-school Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (a name he got from pretending to play the bass while singing the words, “Boom-boom-boom-boom”) and Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein, a Puerto Rican Jewish kid whose trademark bit of comedy was coming to Mr. Kotter with various letters of excuse (for being late, not having homework completed, etc.), signed “Epstein’s Mother.”
For the first few years, Welcome Back, Kotter was enormously successful and really connected with the audience. The show earned big ratings and spawned all sorts of merchandise, from posters to novels, comic books, T-shirts and lunch boxes.
From the stage of the 2011 TV Land Awards, Gabe said, “We weren’t a clique because nobody wanted to get in. The show worked because at every school there was a Horshack, an Epstein, a Washington [and] a Barbarino. And these guys [the cast] brought this to life and made the show successful.”
And with that, we take a nostalgic look back at the Sweathogs and Welcome Back, Kotter, revealing cast secrets fans have always wanted to know.
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