Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Classic TV: Welcome Back, Kotter (1975)

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again. However, that has oft been debunked, most evident in the high school sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, which anchored ABC's Thursday lineup during its first three seasons before being shunted off to Mondays---and inevitable cancellation---in season 4 to make room for Mork & Mindy.

Speaking of anchors, co-creator Gabriel Kaplan anchored the show's ensemble cast as school teacher Gabriel Kotter, who returned to his alma mater of James Buchanan High in Brooklyn, and, in a case of irony, taking over the very same remedial education class he himself was a part of as a student. In other words, he was a founding member of the Sweathogs, and thus acted as a friend and mentor to the current group, which led to them visiting him at home at the most inopportune times.

The Sweathogs were a diverse bunch, with Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) as their de facto leader. Then, there was athletic, suave Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), geeky but dull witted Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), and slippery Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), who was forever fabricating excuses from his mother to get out of class or tough homework assignments, to the point where it became cliched and predictable. One thing that Epstein had in his favor was the fact that he & Kotter shared a fondness for the Marx Brothers, as evidenced by Epstein answering Kotter's Groucho Marx mimic by imitating Chico (or, sometimes, Harpo).

Welcome Back, Kotter also opened doors for some of the supporting cast. For example, Charles Fleischer (Carvelli), who was never considered a series regular due to the infrequency of his appearances, had time to co-host the short lived children's variety show, Wacko, during season 3. Debralee Scott (Rosalie Totsie) left after 1 season to co-star on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman before returning for a 1-shot later in the series. Vernee Watson appeared frequently during the first couple of seasons, then left for a beefier role on Carter Country.

It was clear, however, that John Travolta has had the most success thanks to Kotter. He began a recording career during season 1, and had starred in some major blockbusters after each of the first three seasons ("Carrie", "Saturday Night Fever", & "Grease"), such that he was reduced to "special guest" status in season 4, appearing in 8 episodes. That prompted the producers to introduce a new Sweathog, Beau De la Barre (Stephen Shortridge) in season 4, but he wasn't quite the answer. After Kotter ended, Shortridge & Fleischer co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in a short-lived Aaron Spelling offering for ABC, Aloha Paradise. Shortridge wasn't heard from much again after that.

Perhaps ABC fumbled by moving Kotter to Mondays, but, then, they didn't want to risk breaking up their successful Tuesday block, anchored by Happy Days & Laverne & Shirley, which, despite being set in a different time period, could actually have complemented Kotter because both shows appealed to the same audience as Kotter. The Sweathogs were popular enough such that Welcome Back, Kotter transitioned into comics, with a 10 issue run at DC between 1976-77, but as yet not yet collected in trade paperback.

Sonic540 uploaded the familiar open that everyone knows, with the theme composed and sung by former Lovin' Spoonful frontman John Sebastian.......

Rating: A-.


magicdog said...

It wasn't enough that Robert Heyges died so young, now Ron Pallillo is gone too!

We loved watching "Kotter" back in the day. I even had a long sleeved T-shirt with all the characters on it (think Andy Warhol inspired designs) and even in elementary school, we as a class, read the script of an episode, each kid taking turns playing a character!

I think I was Epstein!

Part of the reason the show began to falter (despite Travolta's exit) was the change in writers. Instead of seasoned sitcom writers, TPTB brought in writers from the Carol Burnett Show, and writing for a variety show is very different.

Gabe Kaplan was living here in Las Vegas a while. He had a self named comedy club at the Palace Station Hotel/Casino. He left a few years back, and Louie Anderson now has the room.

I also remember Vernee Watson (Johnson) as the voice of Valerie on "Josie & The Pussycats" and as Will's mom, on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"

Trivia: My dad worked for the City of NY, and took numerous civil service exams. One exam happened to take place at the same building used for the exteriors of fictional "Buchanan HS" - the New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst.

RIP Ron! Heaven will be laughing as you "Oooh Oooh" while waiting on line outside the pearly gates!

hobbyfan said...

Vernee Watson didn't work on Josie. That was years earlier. Instead, she was on Capt. Caveman.

I should've noted, too, that Helaine Lembeck (Judy) left to join brother Michael on Krofft Supershow (she was in the Magic Mongo segment in season 2), where papa Harvey was a producer.

New Utrecht HS was, in fact, Gabe Kaplan's alma mater, hence the basis for the series. Small world, no?

magicdog said...

I do remember the Lembecks. Michael was also on an episode of Barney Miller as a (former) Narc who was transferred to Barney's squad. He was ordered to "clean up" and shave his beard, and he looked all babyfaced! The joke being no one would take him seriously as a cop since he looked so boyish! It wasn't until years later that I learned he was Helaine's brother and both were children of Harvey.

hobbyfan said...

It took me a while before I made the connection, too, but I did the research at the library after moving to my current abode.