'Welcome Back, Kotter:' Gabe Kaplan Was Our Teacher And We Were All Sweathogs

By | October 19, 2017

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Gabe Kaplan as Mr. Kotter on 'Welcome Back, Kotter.' (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

In 1975, a new sitcom set in a Brooklyn high school came to television, called Welcome Back, Kotter. Gabe Kaplan played Mr. Kotter, a teacher trying to reach a group of underachieving students known as the "Sweathogs." The adventures and schemes of students Vinnie Barbarino, "Boom Boom" Washington, Arnold Horshack and Juan Epstein proved endearing and hilarious, and Gabe Kaplan's Mr. Kotter was America's favorite TV teacher in the late '70s. 

Kaplan's portrayal of Mr. Kotter hit just the right notes -- he was endlessly relatable. Kotter's students got it, and so did the real people watching their TVs at home. Kotter wasn't the kind of teacher who'd get you into Harvard, but if you were in trouble or in danger of failing in life, he was the teacher who could save you. And he did it in a way that his students could understand; he wasn't trying to be their best friend, but he was a lot friendlier than the authority figures who'd written them off. Many young people watching the show, remedial and straight-A students alike, saw in Mr. Kotter the sort of classroom leader they wished they had.

The Sweathogs were students in the remedial class of the fictional James Buchanan High School, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Each of the main characters had his own special niche and stood out for it. All the students were lacking in some way or another but generally the one thing they all had in common was that they were a little bit lazy. They only attended school because they had to, and prided themselves on getting by with doing as little as possible. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, their teacher, Mr. Kotter, had their number, as he was a former remedial student himself -- in fact, he was one of the original Sweathogs.

Once A Sweathog, Always A Sweathog

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Gabe Kotter, the wisecracking Sweathog teacher, fought his way out of the same class at the same high school years prior, only to end up right back where he started. Because he ended up assigned to the very same class he came from, he had insight other teachers didn’t. Although he had a heart for this group of misfits, he didn’t get any support from the school in general, much less from the never seen Principle Lazarus or Vice Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White). Woodman, having been at the school when Kotter was a student, hadn’t changed a bit, and thought that Kotter was getting exactly what he deserved.