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

Entertainment | October 19, 2017

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

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.   

Although essentially harmless, the Sweathogs were widely referred to as hoodlums and considered to be troublemakers. The school’s only hope for them was that they would cause as little trouble as possible until they were finished, one way or another, with their school careers. Mr. Kotter’s role, as far as the school was concerned, was to babysit them in the interim. Little did anyone know that he would make a dramatic impact on the group, ultimately winning their respect.

Mr. Kotter often found himself doing less teaching and more counseling and intervention for the main group of four students in his class. It wasn't unusual for one or more of the Sweathogs on the doorstep or fire escape of his apartment, much to the chagrin of his wife Julie (Marcia Strassman). To him, this was every bit as important as book smarts. Kotter was able to relate to the Sweathogs on a personal level because he had been there himself. He knew they needed him, even if they didn’t always know it. The four main students are ladies' man Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), cool dude Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs), tough guy Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), and the awkward Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo). The group was racially and ethnically diverse, which added to the appeal of the Sweathogs.  

Vinnie Barbarino, a swaggering Catholic Italian American, always had a girl or two hanging off his arm and incessantly combed his lustrous hair. Barbarino felt the need to be the center of attention, and to that end was known to belt out his own last name to the tune of "Barbara Ann." Boom-Boom, an African American, was the athlete of the group. He was a star on the basketball court and had that signature catch phrase, “Hi, there,” which was always delivered with a huge smile and a deep voice. Epstein, a Puerto Rican, Jew, had a reputation for being the toughest guy at Buchanan High. He was also known for his big hair and ridiculously, fake absentee notes, always signed, “Epstein’s Mother.” Oddball Horshack, although somewhat naïve, was the class clown who laughed like a hyena. He was actually promoted out of the remedial class but came back willingly because he felt more at home there. Another character, although not a regular, who was frequently seen and spoken about was Rosie Totsie (Debralee Scott), also known as Hotsie Totsie. Her father was a pastor and she was portrayed to be less-than-virtuous, although the Sweathogs grossly exaggerated her reputation. Male viewers, especially teenage boys, were really drawn to her character.  

Welcome Back, Kotter was based on Kaplan’s own experience in remedial education at New Utrecht High School. Many of the characters are based on real life people he knew from school. He had that one teacher who took a personal interest in him and wanted to depict that special quality. Ironically, he didn’t think the show would do as well as it did and left the series in the third season to pursue other options. He was then cast as the new vice principal, and was not the center of the show as he had been before. In the fourth and final season, John Travolta scaled back his appearances, to focus on his film career, which was booming with Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). The show had essentially lost two of its key characters and two of its biggest stars. Beau De La Barre (Stephen Shortridge) replaced Vinnie as the token pretty-boy but didn’t quite fill the void. The show continued another two seasons before going off the air in 1979.

The theme song, “Welcome Back” written by John Sebastian, included the line, “your dreams were your ticket out.” It tells a story of a guy who is desperate to leave behind a painful school career and overall dismal existence. Ironically, those dreams led him, “back here where we need ya…” as the song goes; and it comes full circle.

Welcome Back, Kotter catchphrases:

  • Mr. Kotter: Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Max?
  • Vinnie Barbarino: Up your nose with a rubber hose!
  • Vinnie Barbarino: Off my case, toilet-face!
  • Vinnie Barbarino: What? Where?
  • Vinnie Barbarino: I'm so confused.
  • Vinnie Barbarino: Love means never having to hear I'm pregnant.
  • Boom Boom Washington: Hi there.
  • Boom Boom Washington: Hey, Mr. Kot-tair!
  • Boom Boom Washington: I'll take that bet.
  • Horshack: Hellooohhhh. How are ya? I am Arnold HorshAAAAAck.
  • Horshack: (whenever he raises his hand) OOOOOOHHHHH! OOOOOOHHHHH! OOOOOOHHHHH!
  • Mr. Woodman: Kotter, these kids couldn't pass a blood test without cheating! 

Tags: 1975 | The 1970s | TV In The 1970s | Welcome Back Kotter

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.