ABOUT THE SHOW
Welcome Back, Kotter is an American television sitcom starring Gabe Kaplan and featuring a young John Travolta. Videotaped in front of a live studio audience, it originally aired on the ABC network from September 9, 1975, to June 8, 1979.
The show starred stand-up comic/actor Gabe Kaplan as the title character, Gabe Kotter, a wisecracking teacher who returns to his high school alma mater, the fictional James Buchanan High in Brooklyn New York to teach an often unruly group of remedial loafers known as the "Sweathogs." (The nickname reflected the fact that the remedial classes were held on the very top floor of the high school.) The school was based on New Utrecht High School, which was used in the opening credits, and also the high school that Kaplan attended. The school's principal was perpetually absent, while the uptight vice principal, Michael Woodman (John Sylvester White), dismissed the Sweathogs as worthless hoodlums and only expected Kotter to attempt to contain them until they inevitably dropped out.
Kotter, however, had attended the same remedial classes when he was a student at Buchanan, and was a founding member of the Sweathogs. Recognizing that he was his students' last chance to learn enough to survive beyond high school, he soon befriended them as they grew to recognize and appreciate his trust and faith in their potential. His devotion to the class was such that his students often visited his Bensonhurst apartment, sometime via window, but often to the chagrin of his wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman).
Most of the major characters of Welcome Back, Kotter were based on people from Kaplan's teen years as a remedial high school student in Brooklyn. As a stand-up comic, one of Kaplan's most popular routines was "Holes and Mellow Rolls", in which he talked in depth about his former classmates. The names of three of the four major characters in Holes and Mellow Rolls were changed for the television series: "Vinnie Barbarino" was inspired by Eddie Lecarri and Ray Barbarino, from Miami, FL; "Freddie 'Boom Boom' Washington" was inspired by Freddie "Furdy" Peyton; and "Juan Epstein" was partially inspired by Epstein "The Animal"; only "Arnold Horshack's" name remained unchanged. In Kaplan's stand-up routine this character was always referred to as "Arnold Horseshit", which could not be used on network television.
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ABOUT THE CAST
- Played by Gabe Kaplan
A facetious, but well-meaning, teacher who returns to Buchanan High (his alma mater) after ten years to teach a group of remedial students known as the Sweathogs. Being a founding member of the original Sweathogs, Kotter has a special affinity for the potential of these supposedly "unteachable" students. His first day on the job he launches into a Groucho Marx impersonation. Kotter is married to Julie, with whom he eventually has twin girls (Robin and Rachel). It was confirmed by Julie in the episode "Follow the Leader (part 1)" that Gabe is Jewish. During season four, Kaplan had contract issues with the executive producer, and only appeared in a handful of episodes. In season four, the invisable principal John Lazarus retires, and Kotter becomes the vice-principal. Though he is said to maintain some Social Studies teaching duties, most of that season's shows are filmed outside of his classroom (#111), or if in room 111, Mr. Woodman is teaching. To minimise Kotter's absence, scenes were shot in either the school's hallway, the schoolyard, or the principals' waiting area. Season four was the end of the series.
- Played by Marcia Strassman
Gabe's wife and closest friend. Though she has a sense of humor, she often wishes Gabe would take matters more seriously. She is occasionally upset with the amount of time her husband spends with his students, and she is troubled that he allows them to visit their apartment regularly; in the two-part story arc "Follow the Leader", the Sweathogs' constant intrusions led Julie to separate briefly from Gabe and even seriously consider divorce. Originally from Nebraska, with a college degree in anthropology, Julie eventually became a secretary, and later a substitute teacher at Buchanan after Gabe's promotion to vice-principal. She makes several references to her "world famous tuna casserole", a common meal at the Kotter dinner table, which Gabe and the Sweathogs dislike.
Mr. (Michael) Woodman
- Played by John Sylvester White
The curmudgeonly vice-principal (and later principal) of Buchanan High. He makes no secret of his dislike for the Sweathogs, whom he considers the bottom of the social register at his school. He refers to non-Sweathogs as "real" students. When Kotter was a student at Buchanan, Woodman taught Social Studies, the same class Kotter returns to Buchanan to teach. His old age (and sometimes his diminutive height) are common jokes with the Sweathogs. Woodman was totally against Kotter's unorthodox teaching methods (though as the series progressed, he began to tolerate them marginally), and at one point even put Kotter in front of the school's review board in an unsuccessful attempt to get him fired. Nonetheless, in the season one episode "No More Mr. Nice Guy", Kotter is shown to be a gifted teacher, willing to wear historic costumes and role-play in front of the class during his lessons.
Vincent "Vinnie" Barbarino
- Played by John Travolta
A cocky Italian-American, and "unofficial official" leader and resident heartthrob of the Sweathogs. Barbarino's prowess with women was a source of envy (and more often amusement) among his classmates. On occasion, he would break out in song of his last name sung to the tune of The Regents' song, "Barbara Ann". He was the first of the Sweathogs to move out on his own when he got a job as a hospital orderly. In the first episode of the series and fourth season, he has a girlfriend, Sally. Vinnie is Catholic (often quoting his mother as a saint), and as shown in "I'm Having Their Baby", is a Star Trek fan. Little is known about Vinnie's life at home other than his parents argue a lot ("Follow the Leader (part 2)"), his mother's name is Margie ("The Great Debate"), and he shares a bed with his brother. The episode "Don't Come Up And See Me Sometime" implied that Vinnie is the older of the two.
- Played by Ron Palillo
The class clown of the Sweathogs, completely comfortable with his oddball, if naïve, personality. Horshack was known for his unique observations and his wheezing laugh, similar to that of a hyena. (Palillo revealed on a 1995 episode of The Jenny Jones Show that it originated from the way his father breathed during the last two weeks of his life as he lay dying from lung cancer.) It is possible that academically he is the smartest Sweathog. He was the only one of the central Sweathogs to be promoted out of remedial academics class, but he soon returned after feeling out of place. He has an affection for acting and enjoys old movies, particularly 1930s musicals. He eventually married Mary Johnson, a co-worker and fellow Sweathog. Although his surname sounds like a term for a brothel, he claimed it is a "very old and respected name" meaning "the cattle are dying." His middle name (and his mother's maiden name) is "Dingfelder."
Freddie "Boom Boom" Percy Washington
- Played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs
The hip, black student known as the athletic Sweathog for his skills on the basketball court, Washington claimed his nickname came from his habit of "pretending to play the bass" and singing "Boom-boom-boom-boom!". Though often the voice of reason among his classmates, Washington nonetheless was a willing participant in the Sweathogs' various antics and pranks. Freddie also found success as a radio disc jockey along with another former Sweathog, Wally "The Wow" (played by George Carlin). At one point, Washington challenged Barbarino for leadership of the Sweathogs, and even replaced him for a time until the group grew tired of his dictatorial style.
Washington had an older sister, who got divorced twice while living in Vermont ("The Longest Weekend"), and a brother, Leroy. In "The Great Debate" he is revealed to have another brother, Douglas, and their father's name is revealed to be Lincoln. Kotter would use his own past to bond with Freddie, as in addition to being a former Sweathog he was also a former star for Buchanan's basketball team.
Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein
- Played by Robert Hegyes
A fiercely proud Puerto Rican Jew (when asked if his mother was Puerto Rican, Juan replied that his mother's maiden name was Bibbermann—and that his grandfather saw Puerto Rico from the ship as he was making his way to America and decided to settle there instead of Miami), Epstein is one of the toughest students at Buchanan High, despite his short stature. He normally walked with a tough-man strut, wore a red handkerchief hanging out of his right back pocket, and was voted "Most Likely to Take a Life" by his peers. In the season one episode, "One of Our Sweathogs Is Missing", Epstein was shown to be the sixth child in his family, although his mother had ten, while in the episode "I'm Having Their Baby" he mentions that his mother gave birth eight times. The only names of his siblings mentioned in the show are two brothers, Pedro and Sanchez ("One of Our Sweathogs Is Missing") and a younger sister, Carmen ("A Love Story"). Epstein's toughness was downplayed later on, and became more of a wiseguy. He was also known to have a "buddy" relationship with Principal Lazarus as he often referred to him by his first name, Jack. On a few occasions, when Kotter would do his Groucho Marx impersonation, Epstein would jump in and impersonate Chico Marx or Harpo Marx. Epstein's diminutive height and large hair are common jokes associated with him.
Rosalie "Hotsie" Totsie
- Played by Debralee Scott
The femme fatale purported to have put the "sweat" in Sweathog, though her reputation was largely exaggerated by the Sweathogs' word of mouth. Her promiscuity was at least in part a reaction to the strict discipline enforced by her father, the Rev. Totsie. To restore her good name (and to prove a point), she fabricated a story about one of the Sweathogs getting her pregnant.
The character was a favorite amongst male viewers. The character was phased out of the series at the end of the first season (when Scott was picked to co-star in the syndicated Norman Lear comedy, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), but she reprised her role in a 1978 episode, "The Return of Hotsie Totsie", in which it was revealed that she dropped out of school because she became pregnant and had to become a stripper to support her infant child.
- Played by Helaine Lembeck
A recurring non-Sweathog character in the earlier seasons, Borden is a Straight A student and editor of the Buchanan Bugle, the school newspaper. She was Barbarino's tutor at one point. Despite her academic superiority, she can easily hold her own in a The Dozens contest with any Sweathog.
Beauregarde "Beau" De LaBarre
- Played by Stephen Shortridge
Introduced as a regular character in the fourth and final season, Beau is a handsome, blond, silver-tongued southerner who transfers from New Orleans after being kicked out of several other schools. He ends up in Kotter's class. The producers sought a heart throb that was not a direct knock-off of the "Italian-Stallion" trend that was permeating Hollywood in the mid-1970s. They wanted to retain female viewers, but avoid a Travolta clone. Beau's first reaction to the term "Sweathog" is, "That sounds gross." He seems to have a way with women, as shown in later episodes. One of his running jokes involved imparting whimsical sayings, such as one about how a real man never steps on a pregnant alligator.
Other Recurring Characters
- Vernee Watson as Verna Jean
- Susan Lanier as Bambi, a female addition to the Sweathogs introduced mostly as eye candy.
- Charles Fleischer as Carvelli, introduced as a student foil to the Sweathogs in Season 2.
- Bob Harcum as Murray, Carvelli's loyal, and extremely dim, sidekick.
- Dennis Bowen as Todd Ludlow, a nerdy academic high achiever.
- Geoffrey Stump as Kyle "the Heartbreaker" Lucas
- Irene Arranga as Mary Johnson, later became Arnold Horshack's wife.
- Melonie Haller as Angie Grabowski, introduced in Season 3 as the only official female Sweathog but was gone by the end of the season.