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‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ Star Gabe Kaplan — From Actor to Pro Poker Player

The beloved star decided to take a different and unexpected path

Gabe Kaplan has enjoyed many diverse careers over the decades, ranging from stand-up comedian to sitcom star, film actor and disc jockey, He’s gone from the stage to the poker tables … and quite successfully.

Born in New York City on March 31, 1945, Gabe Kaplan was the star of the popular 70s show, Welcome Back, Kotter. His experience as a student in an under-achieving class in the early 1960s was the basis for the show. Surprisingly, though, entertainment was not his first passion.

Gabe Kaplan and Debralee Scott, 1976
Gabe Kaplan and Debralee Scott, 1976Getty

As a young kid, he had dreams of being a Major League Baseball player.

Baseball was very big in Brooklyn,” Kaplan told Esquire magazine earlier this year. “I lived a block away from Ebbets Field and knew it like the back of my hand. I loved everything baseball: watching it, talking it and especially playing it.”

“I started playing at a huge dirt lot right behind Ebbets Field. It was used for Dodger parking, but when the team was out of town, it was transformed by local kids into two or three baseball fields. We called it ‘Little Ebbets.’”

Unfortunately, his baseball aspirations were dashed because he was unable to make the roster of a minor league team and decided to go in another direction. The immediate alternative was working as a bellman at a Lakewood, New Jersey hotel, where touring comedians sometimes performed.

The actor in 1981
Gabe Kaplan, 1981Getty

Imagining he could bring laughs to many just as the ones he watched at the hotel had, Kaplan set out on his own to work towards a career as a stand-up comedian.

Gabe Kaplan, the comedian

Turns out, his comedy was a hit, and he began touring the country with an act based on his childhood experiences in Brooklyn. After appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson five times from 1973 to 1974, he recorded an album, Holes and Mello-Rolls, about his high school days and other topics. Kaplan was on a roll for sure.

His big breakthrough came with Welcome Back, Kotter, a premise partly based on his comedy act. He plays Gabe Kotter, who returns as a teacher to the dysfunctional high school where he had been a student.

John Travolta, Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975
John Travolta, Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975Getty

A catchphrase from the show, “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” became so popular that it spawned another LP, Up Your Nose, plus became the title of a board game.  

During the series and after it ended in 1979, Kaplan participated in Battle of the Network Stars, defeating Wild Wild West actor Robert Conrad in the first competition, racing past him with a strong sprint to the finish line. In 1979, he starred in the movie Fast Break and in 1982 portrayed Groucho Marx in a play simply titled Groucho.

The actor takes on a new hobby

It was during his acting years that Gabe became involved in financial markets and poker.

Gabe Kaplan, 1987
Gabe Kaplan, 1987Getty

“My second big interest besides baseball was gambling,” he told Esquire. “I was a good card player and there were plenty of poker games going on, mostly with guys who were slightly older than me. I was skilled at watching bowlers compete and figuring out who would come out on top. This was a popular form of gambling at the time in New York. It was called ‘action bowling,’ and basically it was people bowling for money and other people watching and betting as well.”

In 1978, Kaplan made his first appearance at the World Series of Poker and, just two years later, he was considered amongst the poker playing elite. His reputation for the game only grew and, in 2004, he finished third in a World Poker Tour, earning $250,000.

The actor and poker player in 2007
Gabe Kaplan, 2007Getty

He continued his winning streak and, as of June 2017, Kaplan’s total live tournament winnings were $1,991,248. He went on from there and in 2021 returned to host High Stakes Poker. But that success not withstanding, Gabe Kaplan will always be known for Welcome Back, Kotter and his stand-up comedy routines.

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