“Welcome back. Your dreams were your ticket out.” Or, was it the cancellation of “Welcome Back Kotter?” I guess [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]John Sebastian[/lastfm] couldn’t have known that when he sang the song! This weekend on the TVLand Awards, the world will welcome back Gabe Kotter, his wife Julie, Epstein, Boom Boom and even Vinny Barbarino! While Horshack‘s mom will be on-hand, don’t look for Horshack.
(Courtesy of Gary Levin – USA Today)
It was a big welcome back for Gabe Kaplan and the Sweathogs of ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter. They were among the casts of classic TV hits reuniting for Sunday’s TV Land Awards (9 ET/PT), which also is honoring NBC’s Cosby Show, Family Ties and Facts of Life.
“I have wanted to thank this man publicly for 35 years, because he put us on the map, and I never got a chance to tell Gabe ‘thank you’ in a big way,” Travolta said in a backstage interview with his fellow cast members after the taping last weekend, their first get-together in eight years.
Kotter premiered in 1975 during a golden comedy age. All in the Family, Happy Days and M*A*S*Hsat atop the Nielsens, and it was just a month before the arrival of Saturday Night Live. There were patient teacher Gabe Kotter, his wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), curmudgeonly vice principal Woodman (the late John Sylvester White), and the core team of Sweathogs: Travolta’s dim-bulb Vinnie Barbarino; Robert Hegyes’ Puerto Rican Jew, Juan Epstein; Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs’ hip Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington; and Ron Palillo’s nasally nerd Arnold Horshack. (Ellen Travolta, John’s sister, played Horshack’s mom in several episodes.)
“All of us have been or known one of those Sweathogs,” Palillo says via e-mail. (He was recovering from surgery, so he missed the awards.) Horshack was “very smart and gave it up to be liked in high school,” whereas “I was an overachiever.”
Kaplan says each character was based on his school pals, an ethnic melting pot: “The original concept was sort of a funny Blackboard Jungle, but it didn’t sell. So through all the different redrafts of the pilot, it got softer and softer, and the guys were not really threatening.”
Instead, the show mined jokes about Kotter’s uncles, Julie’s tuna casserole, and the Sweathogs’ insult catchphrases, such as, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”
Even those mild epithets — “edgy Disney” by today’s standards, Travolta says — didn’t stop nervous network executives from complaining. “For two weeks, we couldn’t say ‘Up your nose with a rubber hose.’ ” Kaplan says. “We had to say, ‘Up your nose with a garden hose,’ because they
thought a garden hose was less threatening.”
Network execs also didn’t like that the students broke into Kotter’s apartment by climbing through windows, and they refused to show Kotter under the sheets with his wife.
ABC’s affiliate in Boston, where school busing was causing racial tensions, refused to air the show for the first several weeks, but it backed off when it became a near-instant hit. “It was an era where the schools were having a problem with students and disrespect for teachers, and we just
added to that,” Travolta says.
But, Kaplan says, “they were (also) very scared over something nobody else in the country noticed: the ethnic background of all the different kids.” Most fans responded to the idealized vision of a caring, inner-city hero who yukked it up with his class, a contrast with ABC’s more
serious-minded Room 222, which had ended a year earlier. “Everybody wanted a teacher like Mr. Kotter.”
With fame, “I had a lot of dates, I remember that part,” says Hilton-Jacobs, 57. “I kept getting married,” says Hegyes, 59. Both have since done occasional TV guest roles. Kaplan, 66, became a professional poker player; and Palillo, 62, is a teacher in Florida.
By the final season, Travolta’s movie career —Saturday Night Feverand Grease were released during the show’s run — limited his role to a handful of episodes, and Kaplan himself appeared less frequently. The actors were aging, too, as Palillo, the oldest, turned 30. “After a while, that was looking pretty strange,” says Kaplan, who was only four years older.
And fittingly, Travolta says, “it lasted as long as high school lasts.”
At the awards, Hegyes thanked TV Land, which “gave us new life in syndication; I looked at it as an opportunity to poison a whole new generation.” And though the show is not airing now, it lives on in DVD form.