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From the Archives: Welcome Back, Sweathogs

Nickelodeon adds "Welcome Back, Kotter," the sitcom that introduced John Travolta to the world, to its evening lineup in 1995.

May 28, 1995|By Susan King | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • The "Welcome Back, Kotter" cast in a scene in 1978. They are, left to right; Stephen Shortridge as Beau De Labarre, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Freddy Washington, Ron Palillo as Arnold Horshack, Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein, foreground, John Travolta,rear, as Vinnie Barbarino and Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter.
The "Welcome Back, Kotter" cast in a scene in 1978. They are,… (ABC / Associated Press )

School's back in session beginning Monday on Nick at Nite.

The cable channel's adding "Welcome Back, Kotter," the sitcom that introduced John Travolta to the world, to its evening lineup. The series, which aired on ABC from 1975 to 1979, stars Gabriel Kaplan as Gabe Kotter. A funny, understanding history teacher, Kotter returns to his alma mater, Brooklyn's James Buchanan High, to teach a group of remedial misfits called the sweathogs. A former sweathog himself, Kotter immediately bonds with the students: Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), Freddie (Boom Boom) Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) and Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo).

Nick's kicking off their return with a weeklong event--"Nick at Nite Welcomes Back Kotter." Each evening will highlight episodes featuring catch phrases the show made famous: "Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose"; "Ooh Ooh"; "What? Where?"; "Hi There" and "Very Impressive."

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When the series premiered, "I was pretty hot doing stand-up," says Kaplan, now involved in business and investments. "I came up with the idea [of the series] along with Alan Sacks."

Like Kotter, Kaplan had been a sweathog in high school and talked about them as adults in his comedy routines. "I'd done it on'The Tonight Show'five times. It was sort of running out of gas. I said, 'Can I do something with it?' Because everybody really liked them."

The sweathogs were still his contemporaries in his first concept. "In every neighborhood, there was always three or four guys who don't change. They are the same at 35 as they were at 17. I was like 30 at the time, and I said what about Horshack, Epstein, Barbarino and Washington and myself as these guys. But there were problems about where the set would be and whose life you would focus on. Then it occurred to me, what if these characters were still students, but instead of me being a contemporary, I'd be the teacher? The only fictitious character is Kotter."

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Hegyes, who played Epstein, believes that "Kotter" was his greatest job. "Not that I won't have other really great jobs," adds Hegyes, who played Det. Manny Esposito from 1986 to 1988 on "Cagney & Lacey."

"But it's a job where I went to work and laughed every day. So how do you beat that? I also had a chance to direct a show."

Hegyes was appearing on Broadway when "Kotter" happened. "I was on Broadway in a play called 'Don't Call Back'," he recalls. "It closed rather quickly. I left immediately to do this."

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Palillo, who played the excitable Horshack, also was a New York stage actor.

"I was doing this hit play off-Broadway called 'The Hot L Baltimore,' " he says. "I always thought I was this kind of successful actor bringing in $140 a week. Within minutes, I went to 'Welcome Back, Kotter.' We were all thrust into real culture shock."

Palillo says he had no concept of just how many people watched the show. He could only envision the 300 people who came to tapings. "The show had been on just three weeks and I went to Disneyland and they cordially asked me to leave," Palillo recalls. "I asked, 'What am I doing?' They said, 'Do you want to look around?' There were, like, thousands of people following me."

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He's still amazed when he's recognized. "I've put on a little weight. I've aged 20 years. I have a new nose. I work out five days a week. I have a body. I don't think I look like that. I can walk around and somebody will come up and say 'Ron, you're great' or 'Hey, Horshack.' "

Palillo just finished a year on ABC's "One Life to Live" as a gambler named Max. He keeps busy doing regional theater and shot an independently produced TV pilot called "Midlife." An artist, Palillo's working on his second children's book and has started a T-shirt line named, aptly enough, Welcome Back. "They are really serious art T-shirts," says Palillo, whose paintings have been exhibited in galleries.

After "Cagney & Lacey" left the airwaves, Hegyes wrote seven film scripts. "Three of them are over at ICM," he says. He also taught at his alma mater, New Jersey's Rowan College. "They gave me a full professorship for a year teaching theater, TV and film. It was a great job. Before 'Kotter,' I was doing a lot of substitute teaching."

Bitten by the acting bug while teaching, Hegyes has been doing stand-up in L.A. comedy clubs. "It's scary and fun. It's one thing doing other people's words and getting laughs; it's another thing when you're doing your own and hoping that they laugh."

They all got a laugh out of a "Saturday Night Live"sketch last fall that featured Travolta as Barbarino in a spoof called "Quentin Tarantino's Welcome Back, Kotter."

"Adam Sandler had me down cold," Hegyes says, laughing.

"Well, Michael Myers had a little pot belly on me," Kaplan says. "I wonder where he got that interpretation. I was very thin when I did the show. I'm looking at it and everyone is great. That's a good Washington. The guy who is doing Barbarino is sensational. And here I come out with a big pot belly!"

"Welcome Back, Kotter" airs Monday-Friday this week from 8 to 11 p.m. on Nickelodeon.


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