Welcome Back, Kotter: What We Never Knew Back Then

A lot of shows made waves in the mid-1970s, but one that really stood out was Welcome Back, Kotter. When ABC launched the show on September 9, 1975, viewers instantly became hooked on the sitcom and its fascinating yet unruly group of high school students, aka the Sweathogs.

John Travolta / The Cast of Welcome Back, Kotter / Marcia Strassman, John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes / Ron Palillo.
Source: Getty Images

The cast was made up of newbies in showbiz and the four main students who had little experience in film and Broadway. However, for a sitcom that never made it to the top 10 Nielsen ratings, Welcome Back, Kotter was extremely popular, and John Travolta signed a three-picture deal with Robert Stigwood worth $1 million that brought him into the limelight.

Creator Gabe Kaplan’s High School Set was the Inspiration Behind the Show

During his high school days, Gabe was a star on his high school baseball team, and he had a life-long dream of playing in the Major Leagues. When he didn’t do so well at the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp, he headed back east to Lakewood, New Jersey, where he got a job as a bellman at a resort. While there, he paid attention to touring comedians’ performances, and that was when he decided to give stand-up a try.

A still from the television series.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Over time, Kaplan created a routine of sharing some of his personal life experiences in a reformatory class held at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School. Afterward, he went on tour with his act. Welcome Back, Kotter was born after the then-producer of Chico and the Man, Alan Sacks, who was working in Los Angeles, caught a whiff of Gabe Kaplan’s rib-cracking performance at The Comedy Store. The producer decided that Gabe’s tales from his high school days would make a great series.

The Sitcom was Initially Called Simply ‘Kotter’

Former singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful, John Sebastian, was hired to compose a theme song for the show named Kotter at the time. But he had difficulty finding words that rhymed with Kotter. So, he wrote a song titled “Welcome Back” and the song instantly caught on.

A still of John Travolta in a scene from the show.
Source: YouTube

The song created the image of a warm, nostalgic feeling of a man returning home rather than a classroom full of bothersome teenagers. After much deliberation, they merged both titles, hence Welcome Back, Kotter. The theme song, “Welcome Back”, topped the Billboard pop chart for a whole week sometime in May 1976.

The Sweathogs Reflect the Lives of Real People

Considering the fact that the entire show is based on Gabe’s real-life experiences, it’s no news that the Sweathogs depict the lives of real-life characters. Vinnie Barbarino, who was initially called Eddie Barbarini, was created from two real-life characters. One was a tough guy named Joey Cluchi that producer Alan Sacks was familiar with, and Gabe’s co- Sweathog named Eddie Lecarri. Freddie “Furdy” Peyton gave birth to Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington.

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes, and Stephen Shortridge clasp hands in a still from the television series.
Photo by ABC Television/Getty Images

Then there’s Epstein the Animal, as he was called in Kaplan’s high school. On the show, he was the half-Puerto Rican named Juan Epstein based on the suggestion of Michael Eisner, who was ABC’s head of programming back then. The only person who retained his real-life counterpart’s name is Arnold Horshack. According to Kaplan, Arnold was overly obnoxious to the point that in fourth grade, the teachers regarded him as Arnold Horsesh.

Ron Palillo Did Not Initially Prepare to Audition as Arnold

While speaking in an interview with McCall, Ron explained that because the producers needed four tough-looking guys from New York to play the role of the Sweathogs, he dressed up looking as tough as he could, “…tight bell-bottoms, a leather jacket, a T-shirt.” Before heading to the audition, he looked at himself in the mirror and asked himself why he was auditioning in the first place.

A portrait of Ron Palillo as Arnold.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Ron felt like he didn’t have a shot at landing the role, but when he arrived and took a look at the script, he thought it was for an entirely different character named “Arnold Horshack.” According to him, the name brought up a lot of thoughts, but none of them pointed to being tough. At that point, he concluded that the producers weren’t looking for tough, so he made up Arnold’s character right there.

Marcia Strassman was Unhappy with the Show

In a 1978 interview conducted with People Magazine, Marcia, who played the role of Gabe’s wife, did not sugarcoat her feelings of displeasure about working on set and specifically with Gabe. According to her, Gabe seemed to have a split personality where some days he was your best friend and the next day, he acted as though he was your enemy. “Gabe runs hot and cold,” she explained.

A backstage picture of Marcia Strassman with her co-stars.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Marcia’s first signs of discontent were when she realized by Season 2 that her role as Mrs. Kotter was basically asking Gabe what happened? While he tried to amuse her with one of his stories about one of his relatives. In her words, “Even blatant hostility would be easier to deal with. It has always been hard to act with him, especially in intimate scenes. Marcia also stated that she hated the series and prayed daily for its cancellation.

Kaplan Had Issues with Producer James Komack

Another issue that arose behind the scenes was Kaplan’s power struggle with producer James Komack, who fired most of the writing staff that had worked on the show since the inception of Season 4. James had hired the writing staff from The Carol Burnett Show.

A still of Kaplan in a classroom scene from the show.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Kaplan also objected to the change from high school student/teacher issues to more comedy-based or deliberately clumsy acts. Due to the producer’s actions, Kaplan only appeared in a few episodes during the final season of the popular mid-70s sitcom.

Some of Charlie’s Angels Tried Out for the Role of Mrs. Kotter

Crazy as it may seem, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both auditioned to play the role of Julie Kotter, but despite their attempt at landing the part, Marcia Strassman got the role. Thankfully, there was no bad blood afterward, and everything worked out in the end because Marcia became good friends with Jackson.

A picture of Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith of Charlie's Angels.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Jackson was kind enough to gift Marcia a motorcycle for her 30th birthday. But here’s where the sad news comes in: Not long after she received the gift, Strassman had a terrible accident while riding that left a significant injury on her cheek that required 10 stitches and eventually plastic surgery to repair the damage.

Three of the Cast Members Made it to the Billboard Charts While Working on the Show

In 1967, cast member Marcia Strassman tried singing, but she had very little success. John Travolta was able to get a few hits from the Grease soundtrack. But while Welcome Back, Kotter was in its prime, Travolta and two of his co-stars made another attempt to launch recording careers.

Marcia Strassman, John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Robert Hegyes attend an event.
Photo by Andrew H. Walker/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Gabe Kaplan’s new single “Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose” successfully made it to #91 in 1977, while Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’ self-named album touched the lower surface of the Billboard Soul Chart in 1978. As predicted, Travolta had the most success, hitting #10 in 1976 with “Let Her In.” No matter how big of a star John became, he always traced success back to the show.

Arnold’s Trademark Laugh Comes from a Sad Backstory

Ron Palillo, who played the role of Arnold Dingfelder Horshack, was only 10 years old when he lost his father to lung cancer. As a result of the tragic experience, he developed a severe stutter, and his mother enrolled him in acting classes in hopes they would help correct his speech impediment.

A still of Ron Palillo sitting in the classroom.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

When Ron auditioned for the role, he came up with his character on the spot. The Horshack’s trademark laugh was created after Ron copied his father’s wheezy, gasping voice from when he struggled to breathe at the latter stage of his illness.

Racial Tensions Made Boston Residents Miss the First Four Episodes

When Welcome Back, Kotter premiered in September 1975, Boston had just implemented the desegregation of public schools based on court order. As a result of the desegregation, racial tensions ran wild, and there was fear that the Sweathogs’ characters would inspire violence.

Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Ron Palillo examine a film projector in a still from the television series.
Photo by ABC Television/Getty Images

Boston’s ABC affiliate leader decided not to carry on with the show because he felt that a “cast of non-scholastic high schoolers might have an unhealthy influence on local students.” About four weeks later, they realized that the Sweathogs were not as dangerous as they had imagined, and the ban was lifted just in time for Episode 5 to air.

The Four Sweathogs Were as Famous as the Beatles at Some Point

After the first episode of the American sitcom, the four previously obscure stars soon discovered that they couldn’t easily go out in public without being surrounded by a mob. The producers were quick to act and put their popularity to good use. Soon enough, the Sweathogs’ faces were on every type of merchandise, ranging from T-shirts to lunch boxes to even board games.

A still from the television series.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Their popularity spread so fast that, at one time, the network had to use a helicopter to fly the cast to LAX so that they wouldn’t miss their flight to New York. While looking down at the numerous fans scattered around the airport, Robert Hegyes said to Ron Palillo in excitement, “Ron! We’re the freakin’ Beatles!!”

The Original Catch Phrases Were Not Appropriate

Some phrases like “Up your nose with a rubber hose” were as bad as “Kiss my grits” and “Dy-no-mite!” back in the late 1970s. The rhyming aspect of these phrases came from Gabe Kaplan’s stand-up routine; it was regarded as “ranking” and the most popular rank at his high school. Horshack usually uttered such phrases when he wasn’t sure of what else to say.

Gabe Kaplan speaks to an unidentified actor in a still from the television series.
Photo by ABC Television/Getty Images

Another phrase was, “Up your hole with a Mello Roll,” (A Mello Roll was an ice cream treat popularly enjoyed in Brooklyn and the Bronx.) At this point, ABC decided that these phrases submitted by Gabe were not suitable for primetime TV, so they took steps to soften them up a bit.

Robert Hegyes Originally Wanted to Play the Role of Barbarino

After a successful audition, Robert felt that he had landed the role of Barbarino, only for him to arrive at the location to shoot the pilot and discover otherwise. While he was in an elevator with Alan Sacks and John Travolta, Alan introduced Travolta as Barbarino. Immediately, Robert corrected Alan and said, “I’m Barbarino.”

A promotional portrait of Robert Hegyes for the television show.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Sacks, however, reiterated that Robert was Epstein, and Travolta was playing the role of Barbarino. After pausing briefly, Hegyes asked Sacks if he would be getting the same pay as Travolta, and when he confirmed the salaries, he accepted the role.

Gabe Kaplan Barely Showed Up in the Fourth Season

Anyone who regularly watched Welcome Back, Kotter must have noticed that the series star Gabe only showed up in a few episodes in the fourth season. His decision was mostly because he thought the initial storyline needed to progress further. He explained to Seattle Times that the characters didn’t have to remain in high school continually.

A promotional portrait of Gabe Kaplan for the show.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He suggested that Kotter get a job at a junior college, and if, after giving it a shot, it didn’t work, they move on. Gabe explained that the producers were so afraid of his suggestion not working that they decided to go on with their script. After sharing his idea and realizing that majority did not agree, he realized he didn’t want a significant part in the show anymore. For him, the show started to look very strange, and since the producers decided they were going to stick with their decision, he chose to partake in only a few episodes in the fourth season. John Travolta also showed up in a handful of episodes in the fourth season as well. For Gabe, the show began to feel like Kotter was heading to The Twilight Zone.

Robert Hegyes felt Epstein’s Character was the Same as Chico Marx’s

Though his official website is no longer running, Robert commented on his website that Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers inspired his character, Juan Epstein. Epstein, the swaggering, skirt-chasing character, shared a lot of character traits with Chico Marx, who was also a juvenile delinquent, and he could easily relate.

A promotional poster of The Marx Brothers.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

In his statement about the brothers Marx, Hegyes noted that they were immigrant Jews, and he was an immigrant Italian, so there was a connection. Characters like Harpo, Chico, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo were all intellectuals who played the piano and took music lessons despite being juvenile delinquents.

Gabe Kaplan, aka Gabe Kotter, was Not Your Regular Comedian

Mr. Gabe Kotter, played by Gabe Kaplan, was not your conventional high school teacher, but he had good intentions for returning to his alma mater to teach a bunch of young misfits. Gabe Kaplan co-created the show, and he did a great job providing viewers with beautiful comedy while also dealing with current topics like drug abuse, gang violence, teen pregnancy, and many others.

Gabe Kaplan poses in a promotional studio picture.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

In the mid-80s, Gabe took a break from acting and got involved in high-stakes poker. He got so involved that he became a commentator for poker tournaments and the series named High Stakes Poker on GSN. Presently, at the age of 75, Kaplan is a star poker player, stand-up comedian, and author. He wrote a book in 2007 called “Kotter’s Back: E-mails from a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World.” The book talked about exchanging interesting emails, like the one stating that he has slept with more women than Wilt Chamberlain or one that said he was an expert at Cossack dancing.

Marcia Strassman, Gabe’s Wife, Sadly, is No More

Marcia Strassman played the role of Gabe’s caring wife and closest friend, Julie Kotter, in the American series. While acting on the show, Julie had a great sense of humor but often, she wished her husband Gabe wouldn’t joke about some issues. She played her role well, although there was some misunderstanding between herself and Gabe, who she felt wanted her off the show.

A promotional portrait of Gabe and Marcia for the series.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

However, in 1989, Marcia went deeper into her acting career, playing the mom in the movie “Honey I Shrunk the Kids!” She played the same role for the 1991 sequel. Tremors, a TV spin-off series, aired in 2003, and that was also one of her last major roles. Unfortunately, in 2007, Marcia Strassman was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She fought for her life until she passed away at the age of 66 in 2014.

John Sylvester White Passed Away in 1988

John Sylvester White played the role of Assistant Principal Mr. Woodman, who later became principal on the Show. While on set as the principal, he didn’t hide his disdain for the Sweathogs. Their delinquent behavior made them Mr. Woodman’s primary target. He also did not support Kotter, who attempted to bond with the Sweathogs despite being his colleague. Woodman played his role well and was the perfect adversary for Kotter.

A still of Gabe Kaplan and John Sylvester White in a scene from the series.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

White started his acting career in 1951 when he was on one of the longest-running American soap operas in history, called Search for Tomorrow. After acting for 39 episodes, he didn’t land another role for almost 20 years, and that was a single episode on Medical Center. But when Welcome Back, Kotter came on in 1975, the mainstream role was what White needed. John played his last role in 1983 as the character, Mr. Vogelman, who was the proprietor of the Raytown Travel Agency in the first season of Mama’s Family. White died at the age of 68 in September 1988 after battling pancreatic cancer.

John Travolta (Vincent “Vinnie” Barbarino), the Leader of the Sweathogs

John Travolta, aka Vinnie Barbarino, was well known on the show for his feathered hair and his cocky and funny attitude. He always had loads of insults up his sleeve and did a good job leading the Sweathogs. Vinnie was also known for the legendary catchphrase, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” Travolta explained that his mom wasn’t so keen on him acting because she felt he was too young for the role. He further said that she felt she was protecting his reputation because she never thought he would become famous playing a silly New York character.

A dated image of John Travolta smiling at the camera.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Travolta is now a movie star in every sense of the word. Back in the 90s, he and Samuel Jackson became the best acting duo. He took on his most recent film role in 2019, a quirky one titled The Fanatic. Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst was the writer and director of the film, and it was about an autistic man obsessed with meeting his favorite actor. Two painful occurrences took place in Travolta’s life; the first one was the heartbreaking death of his son, Jet, who suffered from a life-threatening seizure back in 2009. The second tragedy happened in 2020 when John lost his wife, actress Kelly Preston, to breast cancer.

Arnold Dingfelder Horshack (Ron Palillo) with the Intriguing Laughter

Ron Palilo played the role of Arnold Horshack, the class clown who had one of the most contagious laughs. He was the smartest of the troublesome bunch, but he was also quite naive, and viewers quickly became fond of him. Arnold’s wheezing laugh and overall charm made him stand out in the show. In the final season of the series, the producers created a backdoor pilot following Arnold, but because they did not develop the spin-off further, it ended there. Ron’s squealy voice became so iconic that his next role involved voicing the character Sgt. Squealy in an obscure early ’80s cartoon called Laverne & Shirley in the Army.

A still of Ron Palillo holding to Gabe Kaplan’s legs.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Ron continued to act throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He appeared in many B-movies and cameos, like in the 1996 TV show called Ellen, when he played himself. He had one of his final major roles in 1989, starring in a horror movie called “Hellgate.” Palillo lived with his partner, Joseph Gramm, for 41 years in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Unfortunately, sometime in 2012, Ron was rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. His life ended at the age of 63.

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Freddie Percy “Boom Boom” Washington) the Cool Basketball Sweathog

In Welcome Back, Kotter, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, known as Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, was the extra smooth, ultra-cool and skillful basketball-playing Sweathog. Freddie’s trademark comments were, “Hi there,” and of course, we can’t forget “Boom Boom Boom.” Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs started his acting journey in 1975 when he starred in a Blaxploitation movie titled “Cooley High” before he landed a role as one of Sweathogs in Welcome Back, Kotter.

A promotional portrait of Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

While Kotter was still on, Lawrence also starred in the miniseries Roots. He then became a regular in the 1989 TV series Alien Nation. Also, he played Joe Jackson in the 1992 miniseries named The Jacksons: An American Dream. Lawrence did not stop there; he also took a shallow dive into the music industry, where he sang on Rick James’ 1981 album called “Street Songs.” His acting career hasn’t stopped since then, and presently, he’s on the Urban Movie Channel’s series called A House Divided. Currently, at the age of 67, he is also in the process of producing two movies and another TV show. It’s safe to say that Freddie Boom Boom is far from done with the acting world.

The Hot-Headed Puerto Rican, Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes)

Robert Hegyes played Juan Epstein, and his character was a Puerto Rican who happened to be fiercely proud and very hot-headed. Despite his short stature, Juan was one of the toughest kids at Buchanan High. Further down the line, while the show was still on the air, Robert became one of the show’s directors at the age of 25. Ten years later, Hegyes moved to LA and starred in another series where he played the role of an undercover detective named Manny Esposito in Cagney & Lacey.

A dated portrait of Robert Hegyes.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By the 2000s, Robert had moved back to his home state of New Jersey, where he became a teacher at his alma mater, Rowan University. Hegyes is also cousin to famous rockstar Jon Bon Jovi. Sadly, Hegyes died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 60, but his legacy lives on in viewers’ hearts who watched his outstanding acting performance on Welcome Back, Kotter.

Groucho Marx Almost Made a Walk-On Appearance on the Show

Gabe Kaplan worked hard to do a great Groucho impersonation in almost all the episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter. Robert Hegyes, aka Epstein, also did the same with Chico Marx as his inspiration, so both actors were excited when they learned that Groucho had agreed to do a brief cameo on the show. However, Marx was 86 years old then, and his health was rapidly declining.

A promotional portrait of Groucho Marx.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Groucho Marx could make it to the studio but could barely walk and relied heavily on his assistant, Erin Fleming, for support. He was unaware of his surroundings, and the producers decided he was not in good shape to be on camera. Instead, the producers arranged for him to sit in Kaplan’s chair while on the set, and he took a few pictures with the cast while Fleming pitched herself for a potential appearance on Kotter in the future. Based on reports, Marx’s appearance was so disturbing that the photographs he took never went public.

There Were Many Celebrity Guest Appearances on the Show

One of the beautiful things about Welcome Back, Kotter is that viewers had the opportunity to see some of their favorite celebrities act a few lines on the show and add some spice! Stars like Della Reese, James Woods, Pat Morita, George Carlin, and John Astin made guest appearances throughout the four years Welcome Back, Kotter aired.

A still from the television show.
Source: YouTube

Emmy Award-winner Garry Shandling also wrote an episode on the show called “Horshack vs Carvelli” The episode, the 10th one in Season 2, pits Ron Palillo’s “125-pound” Sweathog against Charles Fleischer’s repeated bully character. Garry was only 26 years old when he submitted the script for that 1976 episode.

Welcome Back, Kotter Changed to ‘The Saturday Night Boys’ in Italy

John Travolta’s cinematic success had quite an effect on many people across the globe. Hence, in 1980, one of Italy’s major networks decided to air Welcome Back, Kotter, because Travolta quickly gained worldwide stardom. The actor was soaring off of “Saturday Night Fever”, and the Italians wasted no time in taking advantage of that aspect.

A still of John Travolta sitting in the classroom.
Photo by ABC Television/Getty Images

Italy renamed the series “I ragazzi del sabato sera,” which translates to “The Saturday Night Boys.” Perhaps they hoped that the audiences would be confused into believing the two stories were related. The series became popular in Italy, and Travolta’s fan base continually increased.

Kotter Led to the Attempt of Three Spin-Offs

Kotter initiated the spin-off series saga with Mr. T and Tina. The series ran for five episodes in 1976 and featured Happy Days and Pat Morita, The Karate Kid star. He was a Japanese inventor named Taro Takahashi, who also appeared in the Kotter, Season 2 premiere entitled, “Career Day.” Mr. Takahashi, in the show, attempted to lure Mr. Kotter away from his teaching job by offering him a job at his company.

A still from the television show.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

The only spin-off that made it on air on its own was Mr. T and Tina. Later in that same season, another attempt was made with “There Goes Number 5,” and the plan was for it to become a Horshack-centric spin-off titled “Rich Man, Poor Man; Horshack! Oh.” Unfortunately, the initial episode did not feature Horshack as a way to show that the Sweathogs could live without him because they simply couldn’t. Twenty years later, Robert Hegyes (Epstein) announced that they were working on a sequel series to show grown-up Sweathogs, but it never happened.

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