Welcome Back Kotter
The title character, Gabe Kotter (Gabriel Kaplan), is a wise-cracking teacher who returns to the same Brooklyn, New York high school from which he graduated, James Buchanan High School. His often unruly group of remedial academics students were known as the "Sweathogs." The central Sweathogs are Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), a handsome dimwit; Juan Epstein (Robert Heyges), a tough Jewish Puerto Rican; Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), a friendly basketball enthusiast; and Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), the class clown known for his wheezing laugh. Mr. Kotter soon befriends the Sweathogs and often has them over at his apartment, sometimes to the chagrin of his wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman). The no-nonsense Mr. Michael Woodman (John Sylvester White) is the vice-principal (and later principal) of Buchanan High; he has an open aversion to the Sweathogs, whom he considers a drain on resources. The show is based on Kaplan's real-life experiences as a remedial student in Brooklyn, where Kotter is set.
Kotter began its run amid controversy. In Boston, a city going though a tumultuous school busing program to enhance racial equality, the ABC affiliate felt Mr. Kotter's integrated classroom would only add fuel to the fire. The affiliate refused to air the first four episodes, but decided by the fifth episode to pick up what had become a ratings success. Meanwhile, teachers had concerns about how Mr. Kotter might be portrayed, so producers allowed a teachers' union representative on the set to ensure the show protected the image of those in the profession. There were also fears that the show would amount to a celebration of juvenile deliquency; however, such sentiments faded when the Sweathogs' antics proved to be silly rather than scary.
The show enjoyed ratings success during its first two seasons, spawning a host of merchandising tie-ins such as lunch boxes, dolls, comic books, novels and a board game. The characters' signature lines, such as Barbarino's "Up your nose with a rubber hose" and Washington's "Hi there," became catch phrases. It wasn't long before the previously unknown actors became hot commodities, particularly Travolta, the show's breakout star.
By the third season, the ratings began to slip. In an interview years later, Kaplan attributed the decline to the age of the actors playing the Sweathogs (Palillo was 30, Hegyes was 28, Hilton-Jacobs was 27 and Travolta was 25), saying they were no longer believable as high school students. His idea, which never materialized, was to have Mr. Kotter join the faculty of a community college attended by the Sweathogs. To help lure more viewers, a storyline developed that saw Mr. and Mrs. Kotter have twin girls, though that wasn't enough for the show to regain its earlier momentum.
Major changes took place in the fourth and final season. Travolta, who had already starred in box office hits such as Grease and Saturday Night Fever, began to focus more time on his film career. He was featured in fewer than half of the episodes that year, now billed as a "special guest star." Meanwhile, some behind-the-scenes disputes led to limited appearances by Kaplan. To help fill the voids, Stephen Shortridge joined the cast as smooth-talking southern sweathog Beau De Labarre, and Kotter's wife, Julie, became a substitute teacher at the school. Many fans consider the fourth season to be the worst, often singling out the departure of Travolta as when the show "jumped the shark."
Ninety-five episodes were produced during Kotter's four-year run. Hegyes once said his favorite episode was the one in which Mr. Kotter and the Sweathogs become trapped in a museum with a nutty curator. Other memorable episodes saw the boys solve a Watergate-like liver conspiracy in the cafeteria (complete with Mr. Woodman as an anonymous informant calling himself "Deepthroat"), and Mr. Kotter having to write an exam after a discrepancy is found in his high school records. Later storylines sometimes took a more serious tone, such as Horshack's drinking problem and his refusal to dissect a frog in class. Since producers did not know, at least not for certain, that the show would be cancelled after the 1978-79 season, Kotter had no official finale, no long-awaited graduation for the Sweathogs. Instead, the last original episode dealt with a feud that ensues when Washington gets an after-school job Epstein felt was rightly his. Fittingly, the entire primary cast appeared for one of the few times that season (though not together in the same scene). For almost the entire run, each episode began and ended with Mr. Kotter sharing an often corny joke about one of his relatives.
Kotter failed to receive any major awards. The show was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1976 after its first season, but lost to Mary Tyler Moore. Kotter was also nominated for three technical Emmy Awards: Outstanding Achievement in Videotape Editing for a Series in 1976, Outstanding Art Direction for a Comedy Series in 1978 and Outstanding Individual Achievement - Creative Technical Crafts (Dick Wilson) in 1979.
Several noteworthy performers enjoyed guest stints on Kotter either during or prior to their widespread fame. James Woods (John Q, Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story, Contact) guest starred in the pilot episode. Pat Morita, best known for his role as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid series, appeared in the first episode of the second season. Comedian George Carlin (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) was featured, as was John Astin (Gomez on The Addams Family television series). Other guest stars included Richard Moll (Baliff Bull Shannon on Night Court), Della Reese (Touched By An Angel) and Dinah Manoff (Empty Nest).
At least three spin-offs of Kotter were seriously considered, but only one ever made it to the screen. The short-lived Mr. T and Tina starred Pat Morita as Taro Takahashi (Mr. T for short), a brilliant Japanese inventor whom he portrayed in one episode of Kotter. The show was not received well by critics and lasted just five episodes on ABC. There was also talk of developing a spin-off built around the Horshack character and his family, but it never materialized. In the mid-1990s, Hegyes announced on the Jenny Jones talk show that plans were in the works to create a spin-off featuring the Sweathogs (minus Travolta's Barbarino) all grown up. The project, however, never got off the ground, and little information about it was ever made public.
• September 1975-January 1976, ABC, Tuesday 8:30-9:00 p.m.
• January 1976-August 1978, ABC, Thursday 8:00-8:30 p.m.
• September 1978-October 1978, ABC, Monday 8:00-8:30 p.m.
• October 1978-January 1979, ABC, Saturday 8:00-8:30 p.m.
• February 1979-March 1979, ABC, Saturday 8:00-8:30 p.m.
• May 1979-August 1979, ABC, Friday 8:00-8:30 p.m.
After the show
Following the 1979 cancellation, the stars enjoyed varying degrees of success. After several strong showings, Travolta's film career took a nosedive until 1994's Pulp Fiction revived his status as a strong box office draw. Kaplan made a few comedic films and television guest appearances, but began to focus on investments and a passion for professional poker. He has, however, returned to his stand-up comedy roots in recent years. Hegyes continued acting in movies and on television, where he landed a regular role on Cagney and Lacey on CBS. Palillo also appeared on television and in films, including a three-episode guest shot as himself on the ABC sitcom Ellen. In one of the Ellen episodes, Palillo expresses regret at how he is known almost exclusively for his role as Horshack. One of the episodes was entitled Horshack's Law. Hilton-Jacobs found steady work in movies and television, including his role as the father of the Jackson musical family in the 1992 made-for-TV film, The Jacksons: An American Dream. With the exception of Travolta, none of the cast members ever regained the fame they enjoyed during the four-year run of Kotter.
When Travolta hosted Saturday Night Live in 1994, he appeared in a sketch that lampooned his old show. Quentin Tarantino's Welcome Back, Kotter gave viewers a humorous look at how the Pulp Fiction director might have brought a strong dose of violence to the tame show. Travolta reprised his old character, Barbarino, with Mike Myers as Mr. Kotter, Adam Sandler as Epstein, Tim Meadows as Washington and David Spade as Horshack.
The closest thing to a reunion show came in 1997, when Hegyes, Hilton-Jacobs and Palillo reprised their Sweathog roles on an episode of the short-lived NBC sitcom Mr. Rhodes. Kaplan did not appear; instead, actor John Kassir (who would later play Shemp Howard in The Three Stooges television movie) assumed the role of Mr. Kotter. The episode originally aired on February 3, 1997 and was entitled The Welcome Back Show.
Kotter enjoyed a renewed surge in popularity in the mid-1990s when it aired as part of the Nick and Nite lineup on Nickelodeon. Kaplan later said that the show found plenty of new fans during that run but that they were turned off by the quality of the episodes from the fourth season.
Cast members opened up about their experiences on the show in 2000's Welcome Back, Kotter: The E! True Hollywood Story. The two-hour program included interviews with cast members, including Kaplan, Palillo, Hilton-Jacobs, Strassman and Shortridge. Kaplan spoke of a difficult relationship with executive producer James Komack, whom he saw as not serving the show's best interests. Like many viewers, Kaplan said the quality of the show dropped off in the fourth and final season. Hilton-Jacobs agreed, saying that the new writers brought in that year were not suited to a show of this nature. Palillo said the impact of an attempted ratings-grabber in the final season, Horshack's wedding, was derailed when President Jimmy Carter gave a televised speech that pre-empted the heavily advertised episode. Strassman recalled how disappointed she was at her limited time on camera, a situation that changed in the fourth season when her character became a substitute teacher at Buchanan High.
In 2003, as part of ABC's 50th Anniversary Celebration telecast, Kotter was featured in tribute montage and the original cast appeared together on stage. Notably absent was White, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 at the age of 68.
Kotter lives on in reruns as fans hope that the show will be released on DVD like numerous other sitcoms. Today, Kaplan calls the show a "period piece." It's hard to disagree given the dress worn by the characters (including bell bottoms), hairstyles (afros), language and references to then-current events (Washington exclaims in one episode, "President Ford wasn't elected").
- Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out
- Welcome back to that same old place that you laughed about
- Well, the names have all changed since you hung around
- But those dreams have remained and they've turned around
- Who'd have thought they'd lead ya (who'd have thought they'd lead ya)
- Back here where we need ya (back here where we need ya)
- Yeah, we tease him a lot 'cause we've got him on the spot
- Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
- Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Gabe Kotter is a wise-cracking teacher who returns to Buchanan High, the school from which he graduated ten years earlier, to teach a group of remedial academics students known as the Sweathogs. Having been a Sweathog himself, Kotter has a special appreciation for the potential of these 'unteachable' students. His first day on the job, he shows the students both his authority and his playful side when he fires a giant paper airplane at them in response to a similar attack. Kotter is married to Julie, with whom he eventually has twin girls. When Buchanan High principal John Lazarus retires, Kotter becomes the vice-principal, though maintains some teaching duties.
Julie Kotter is Gabe's wife and closest friend. Though she has a sense of humor, she often wishes Gabe would take matters more seriously. She is occasionally upset with the amount of time her husband spends with his students, who regularly visit their apartment. An anthropology major in college, she eventually becomes a substitute teacher at Buchanan High.
Michael Woodman is the vice-principal (and later principal) of Buchanan High. A short, bitter man, he has an open aversion to the Sweathogs, whom he considers the bottom of the totem pole at his school. He refers to non-Sweathogs as "real" students.
Vinnie Barbarino is the unofficial leader of the Sweathogs. If he had as much success in school as he did with women, he would be getting A's instead of toiling in Mr. Kotter's classes. His trademark lines include "I'm so confused!" (spoken with both hands smushing against his face), and the nonsensical response of "What? When? Where?" to any number of questions. He is the first of the Sweathogs to move out on his own when he gets a job as a hospital orderly.
Juan Epstein is one of the toughest students at Buchanan High. A proud "Puerto Rican Jew," he seems to have notes from his mother excusing him for all manners of wrongdoing, with each slip of paper signed by "Epstein's mother." He normally wears a red hankerchief hanging out of his right back pocket and was voted "Most Likely To Take A Life" by his peers.
Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington, a hip African-American, is known as the athletic Sweathog for his skills on the basketball court. He often greets people with his familiar "Hi there," always accompanied by a handsome smile. Though he's often the voice of reason among his classmates, he's a willing participant in the Sweathogs' various antics and pranks. Freddie also found success as a radio disc jockey along with another former Sweathog, Wally The Wow (played by George Carlin). He always referred to his teacher as "Mr. Kot-Tare."
Arnold Horshack is the class clown in Mr. Kotter's room. A truly odd young man, he is known for his wheezing laugh, which has been compared to that of a hyhena, and unique observations. He is the only one of the central Sweathogs to be "promoted" out of remedial academics class, but he soon returns after feeling out of place. He marries Mary Johnson, a co-worker and fellow Sweathog.
Beau De Labarre, introduced as a regular character in the fourth and last season, is a smooth-talker southerner who transfers to Buchanan High after being kicked out of several other schools. Naturally, he ends up in Kotter's class, though his first reaction to the term "Sweathog" is, "That sounds gross." Filled with whimsical sayings, such one about how a real man never steps on a pregnant alligator, he added some folksy charm to Kotter's class.
• Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was a big fan of the show.
• Sebastian's Welcome Back is the only song written for a television show to reach to top of the musical charts in the U.S.
• The show was originally going to be called simply Kotter, but that was changed because of the theme song lyrics.
• The orange lettering used for Shortridge's name in the opening credits did not match that of the other actors.
• Palillo got a nosejob years after the show ended so he would less resemble Horshack.
• Hegyes went behind the camera to direct some episodes.
• Kaplan was famous for his impersonation of Groucho Marx, which he occasionally performed on the show. He even appeared in a film entitled Gabe Kaplan as Groucho.
- Gabriel Kaplan as Gabe Kotter
- Marcia Strassman as Julie Kotter
- John Sylvester White as Michael Woodman
- John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino
- Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack
- Lawrence Hilton Jacobs as Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington
- Robert Hegyes as Juan Luis Pedro Philippo DeHuevos Epstein
- Stephen Shortridge as Beau De Labarre
- Irene Arranga as Mary Johnson-Horshack
- Charles Fleischer as Carvelli
- Bob Harcum as Murray
- Vernee Watson as Verna Jean
- Debralee Scott as Rosalie Totzie
- Dennis Bowen as Todd Ludlow