1 9 7 5 – 1 9 7 9 (USA)
95 x 30 minute episodes
Debuting on 9 September 1975, Welcome Back Kotter introduced Jewish teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) who returned to his former Brooklyn high school (James Buchanan High) to teach Social Studies and History.
His class were a bunch of semi-literate delinquents – all seemingly well past school age – nicknamed ‘the Sweathogs’.
The Sweathogs were led by Vinnie Barbarino, who had a penchant for rhyming insults (“up your nose with a rubber hose”, “Off my case, potato face”).
This was the role which made John Travolta a major star and set him up for a successful movie career with films such as Saturday Night Fever. After just one season, Travolta was already a sensation, second only to Happy Days Henry Winkler.
With 7,500 pieces of fan mail coming in each week, he was featured on posters and records and was leaning heavily on Scientology to maintain his sanity. However, even faith and philosophy couldn’t keep his personal life sane.
Whenever Travolta returned to his childhood home in Englewood, New Jersey, he snuck in unannounced in the middle of the night. “It’s because of my mother,” he explained.
“Both my folks are enjoying my success more than I ever could, and that’s great. But if I tell her I’m coming, she tells the whole town. And the next thing you know, all these strangers are prowling around the place, peeking at us and tearing out chunks of the house as souvenirs.”
The other main Sweathogs were Epstein (a Jewish Puerto Rican), Washington (a cool streetwise black guy) and Arnold Dingfelder Horshack.
A real-life schoolteacher who was sick of her students imitating Horshack’s famous laugh – which Ron Palillo invented on the spot at his audition to differentiate himself from the competition – wrote to him “I sometimes wish your show had never come on the air,” and Palillo found himself constantly forced to do Arnold’s trademark laugh for strangers who approached him in restaurants.
In 1978 Angie became the first female Sweathog, and Beau (a Southerner) joined the class. Also in 1978, Kotter was promoted to vice principal and Mr Woodman became principal.
Based on the British TV Series Please Sir! (which in turn was based on the 60s movie, To Sir With Love), Welcome Back Kotter amassed a huge following during the 70s. But it didn’t please everyone initially.
Executive Producer James Komack originally hated the concept and had little enthusiasm for Kaplan’s comedy. So he walked out on the show three times before warming to both and deciding to stay.
A group of station managers hated the Sweathogs and, after viewing only the pilot, said the show was “glorifying hoodlums.”
The National Education Association tried to force the show to accept an adviser in order to “protect the image of schoolteachers” and Boston’s ABC affiliate initially banned the show, saying it “advocated the kind of bad attitudes that are not proper behaviour in the classroom.”
Your dreams were your ticket out
To that same old place that you laughed about
Well, the names have all changed since you hung around
But those dreams have remained and they’ve turned around
Who’d’ve thought they’d lead ya?
Back here where we need ya?
Yeah, we tease him a lot ’cause we’ve got him on the spot
Julie Hansen Kotter
John Sylvester White
Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein
Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs
Beau De Labarre