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‘Welcome Back, Kotter’: 10 Fun and Revealing Secrets About The ’70s Classroom Sitcom

You may not personally remember high school the way it was presented in the ABC sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, but from 1976 to 1979 the comic interactions between teacher Gabe Kotter (played by Gabe Kaplan) and his classroom of “Sweathogs” had us roaring with laughter week after week.

The set-up of Welcome Back Kotter, is that Gabe takes a job at alma mater James Buchanan High School, and is charged with educating a group of students deemed juvenile delinquents and collectively known as the Sweathogs, which he had actually been a part of in his youth.

Other characters include Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta, who remains grateful to this day for the show putting him on the map); Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a Puerto Rican Jewish kid; Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), who took his name from playing an air bass guitar and chanting the words, “Boom-boom-boom-boom;” Arnold Dingfelder Horshack (Ron Palillo), the class clown; Gabe’s wife Julie (Marcia Strassman); and vice-principal Michael Woodman (John Sylvester White).

Barney Miller meets Welcome Back Kotter
Back in 1977, ABC issued this image promoting the sitcoms Barney Miller and Welcome Back Kotter. It’s a shame we never actually got this crossover; it would have been great@ABC/courtesty

As Kaplan told the Napes Daily News, “The original concept of the show 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 who and why they were.”

Join us as we explore 10 behind-the-scenes secrets of Welcome Back Kotter.

1. Welcome Back Kotter was inspired by Kaplan’s school days

Welcome Back Kotter
The cast of Welcome Back Kotter has some behind-the-scenes fun.©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

The basic idea for Welcome Back Kotter was inspired by Gabe Kaplan’s days as a student at Brooklyn, New York’s New Ultrecht High School. Unbeknowst to him at the time, the hours he spent in remedial classrooms would actually give him great material to work with when it came time for the show.

Needless to say, things weren’t as humorous back then as they appeared to be in Kotter. As Kaplan told the Naples Daily News, “The original concept of the show 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.”

2. The characters were based on real people

Welcome Back Kotter cast
The Sweathogs make the idea of learning a very different thing that you might be used to. ©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

The characters making up the Sweathogs, and their interactions with each other, were based on actual students that Kaplan went to school with. Vinnie Barbarino was a combination of Eddie Lecarri and Ray Barbarino; Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington was Freddie “Furdy” Peyton, Juan Epstein was at least partially inspired by Epstein “The Animal,” and Arnold Horshack was a student that had that actual name.

“The show worked,” Kaplan mused at the TV Land Awards, “because at every school there was a Horshack, an Epstein, a Washington and a Barbarino. The cast brought this to life and made the show successful.”

3. A couple of ‘Angels’ auditioned for Welcome Back Kotter

Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett
Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett actually auditioned for Welcome Back Kotter before scoring Charlie’s Angels.Getty

What isn’t widely known is that when auditions were being held for the role of Julie Kotter, Gabe’s wife, among those trying out for the part were very-soon-to-be Charlie’s Angels actresses Farrah Fawcett and Kate Jackson — man, would that have screwed up pop culture history if either one of them were cast. In the end, of course, the role went to Marcia Strassman, who, ironically, would express to People in 1978 that she disliked the show so much, particularly working with Kaplan, and that “I pray every day for a cancellation!” Not good.

4. The further adventures of the Sweathogs became a comic

Welcome Back,Kotter Comics
Three issues of the Welcome Back, Kotter comic book published by DC Comics.©Warner Bros. Discovery

Welcome Back, Kotter was so popular that it was adapted into other forms of media, including 10 issues of a comic book launched by DC Comics in 1976; and, between 1976 and 1977, a series of six novels written by William Johnston. Their titles are Sweathog Trail, The Sweathog Newshawks, The Super Sweathogs, 10-4 Sweathogs!, The Sweathog Sit-In and Barbarino Drops Out.

5. There were three attempted Welcome Back Kotter spin-offs

Mr. T and Tina
Pat Morita and Susan Blanchard in the short-lived Welcome Back, Kotter spinoff, Mr. T and Tina.©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

In the case of many popular television shows of the 1970s — All in the Family, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Happy Days among them — network executives were always looking for spinoffs, and Welcome Back, Kotter was one of them.

The show actually did spawn Mr. T. and Tina, which ran for only five episodes and starred Pat Morita (Arnold from Happy Days) as brilliant Japanese inventor Taro Takahashi (who had the nickname “Mr. T”), a character he had portrayed in a single episode of Kotter.

There was also an episode that focused on Arnold Horshack’s family — which would have been titled Horseshack! — that never got beyond the “backdoor pilot” stage as an episode of the main series. And, finally, in the 1990s, Robert Hegyes, who played Epstein on the show, revealed that there had been some development work done on a show that would have featured most of the Sweathogs (sorry, no Vinnie Barbarino) as adults.

6. Welcome Back Kotter spawned many catchphrases

John Travolta
John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino.©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

Welcome Back, Kotter gave us some catchphrases that became part of the popular vernacular for a while. This one seems silly, but Horshack’s “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” when trying to get Kotter’s attention was one of the first. Whenever Freddie tried to be charming, he’d begin, “Hi there!” or address the teacher as, “Hey, Mr. Kot-ter!”

John Travolta got a lot of laughs by playing up Barbarino’s confusion over situations by uttering, “What? Where?” He also loved to exclaim, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” or “Off my case, toilet face!”

Robert Hegyes and Gabe Kaplan
Looks like Epstein’s about to give Mr. Kotter a note from his mother. ©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

And while not a catchphrase, some of the show’s biggest — and most anticipated — laughs came from Hegyes’ Juan Epstein, a character he frequently modeled after Chico Marx of the comedy troupe The Marx Brothers. If Epstein didn’t have an assignment ready to hand in, had missed class or claimed to be sick, he would invariably offer up a bizarre — and oh-so-funny — excuse in the form of a letter that would always conclude with the words, “Epstein’s Mother.”

7. The theme song changed the name of the show

John Sebastian
Singer John Sebastian in 1970, who sang the Welcome Back Kotter theme song. Getty

The series was originally called Kotter, which is what former lead singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful, John Sebastian, was given when he was hired to compose the theme song. As hard as he tried, he could not think of a lyric that would work with the word Kotter, so, instead, he wrote “Welcome Back,” which successfully captured the essential premise of the show. So well, in fact, that producers decided to combine the two, calling the show Welcome Back Kotter.

8. Ron Palillo made up much of the Horshack character

Ron Palillo
Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack.©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

Arnold Horshack may have been based on one of Kaplan’s fellow high school students, but Ron Palillo related to McCall’s magazine that he actually made up much of the character at the audition. The casting call had been for four toughs, so he dressed in tight bell bottom jeans, a T-shirt and a leather jacket, and then looked at himself in the mirror. Recognizing that he was about as far away from tough as could be, he decided to go a different route. “That name,” he said, “brings up all kinds of thoughts, but not tough. So I made him up on the spot. I gave him the accent and laugh right there.”

9. Why Welcome Back Kotter was cancelled

Cast of Welcome Back Kotter
The cast — Minus Gabe Kaplan — gathered together in 1978’s Season 4.©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

By the time the show reached its fourth season in September 1978, which would turn out to be its last one, things were an absolute mess behind-the-scenes. For starters, John Travolta’s movie career was on fire between the one-two punch of Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and Grease, which had been released three months before the season premiere. The bottom line is that he was no longer interested in television, and appeared in 10 of the first 15 episodes and none of the remaining eight.

On top of that, Kaplan for his part simply didn’t believe in the premise of the show anymore, feeling that the Sweathogs still being in high school defied all sense of logic and had resulted in the start of a steep ratings decline in Season 3.

His response to all of this? He only appears in a handful of episodes of the fourth season, the explanation being that Kotter had been promoted to Vice Principal. The actor did have one solution that was rejected, as he told the Seattle Times: “I said, ‘Let’s have Kotter get a job in a junior college and the first day, look who shows up — the Sweathogs. It might not work, but at least we take a shot at it.’ But they were so scared of it not working. And I said, ‘Look, I can’t be a part of this anymore. It’s starting to look really strange.'”

10. In Memorium

Gabe Kaplan and Marcia Strassman
Gabe Kaplan and the late Marcia Strassman. ©Warner Bros. Discovery/courtesy

Several members of the Welcome Back, Kotter cast are no longer with us: Robert Hegyes from an apparent heart attack on January 26, 2012 at the age of 60; on August 12 of that year, Ron Palillo also suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 63; Marcia Strassman died from breast cancer on October 24, 2014 at age 66; John Sylvester White died from pancreatic cancer at age 68 in 1988; and Debralee Scott, who had the recurring role of Rosalie ‘Hotsy’ Totsy, died at age 52 of cirrhosis on April 5, 2005.

Welcome Back, Kotter is currently airing on Rewind TV. To find Rewind TV in your city, go to Rewind

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