‘Welcome Back, Kotter’: 8 Things You Didn’t Know (Or Have Forgotten)

WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Gabe Kaplan, John Travolta, Ron Palillo, 1975-1979
Everett Collection

While only lasting four seasons from 1975-79, ABC’s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter was one of TV’s biggest hits of the decade. Seasons 1 and 2 were the series’ strongest, when John Travolta’s Vinnie Barbarino was still a key part of the storylines surrounding teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) and his class of remedial students, affectionately nicknamed the “Sweathogs.” Travolta — who not only became a breakout star on this series but also saw his big-screen career skyrocket at the same time, thanks to his roles in Carrie (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) — started appearing less during the show’s third and fourth seasons before leaving it entirely. Kaplan also became less of a factor during those seasons due to creative differences, and the ratings were affected accordingly. At its height, during its second season, Welcome Back, Kotter ranked No. 13; by the end, it had plummeted to No. 78.

Here are eight things about Welcome Back, Kotter and its cast that you may not know or have forgotten since enjoying the series back in the day:

1Surviving cast members are few

Gabe Kaplan poker, John Travolta and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs at TCM Fest 2024

Bryan Haraway/www.pmphotographic.net.; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images for TCM; Presley Ann/Getty Images for TCM

The biggest success of the series, of course, was John Travolta. The now-70-year-old actor has been back on Hollywood’s A-list ever since his triumphant comeback with a Best Actor Oscar-nominated performance in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Travolta is one of the three surviving main regular cast members of Kotter. Gabe Kaplan is another, who turned 79 in March. After acting, he had a lot more success in his other career as an elite poker player and commentator on the game: He competed in several World Series of Poker events and other live tournaments, winning nearly $2 million. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Sweathog Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, is now 70, and has continued acting in various film and TV projects post-Kotter, mostly in supporting and guest-starring roles. Most recently he led the streaming drama A House Divided, which ran from 2019-23, and voiced a character in the Disney+ animated series The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder in 2022-23.

2Most cast members passed away in their 60s

WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, Marcia Strassman, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes1975-79.

Everett Collection

Marcia Strassman, who played Gabe’s wife, Julie Kotter, passed away in 2014 at age 66. Her biggest successes came alongside Rick Moranis in the 1989 feature film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and its 1992 sequel. Ron Palillo, who played class clown Arnold Horshack, died at age 63 in 2012, at the home he shared with Joseph Gramm, his partner of 41 years. Palillo was also a successful stage actor, director and playwright, and a talented artist who illustrated two children’s books. About seven months before Palillo’s death, fellow Kotter castmate Robert Hegyes (Sweathog Juan Epstein) had also passed away, at age 60. Hegyes was a California-certified secondary education teacher. He also became artist-in-residence at his alma mater, Rowan University, where he taught screenplay writing, acting for camera and public speaking.

3Kotter Controversy

The series was originally banned in Boston before it even premiered because the local ABC affiliate thought it was about the racially heated topic of school busing (it did end up on the air in Beantown).

4The “Sweathog-ettes”

WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, from left: Ron Palillo, Melonie Haller, John Travolta, Robert Hegyes, in 'Angie' (Season 3, Episode 18, aired January 12, 1978), 1975-79.

Everett Collection

Although the boys got the most fame and screen time, there were a few female Sweathogs who made sporadic appearances: Judy Borden, played by Helaine Lembeck; Bambi Forster, played by Susan Lanier; and Angie Grabowski, played by Melonie Haller (pictured above). Lanier left in 1976 after being cast as Chrissy on Three’s Company when that sitcom was in preproduction, and she even shot the series’ second pilot with John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt, but was ultimately, of course, replaced with Suzanne Somers.

5I’m Ready for My Closeup, Mr. Kotter

SUNSET BOULEVARD, Gloria Swanson, 1950

Everett Collection

Former silent movie star Gloria Swanson auditioned to play the school principal on this series, but the character was ultimately changed to a male (played by John Sylvester White).

6Kotter’s Loss Was Charlie’s Gain

CHARLIE'S ANGELS, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, 1976-1981

Everett Collection

Future Charlie’s Angels stars Farrah Fawcett and Kate Jackson auditioned for the role of Julie Kotter, but it was apparently decided that it would be too unbelievable for women like them to be married to a guy like Gabe Kotter.

7Your Next Photo Op When in Brooklyn

The school building shown in the opening and closing credits is New Utrecht High School, which still operates in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

8Perfect Attendance for “Boom Boom”

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs of WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, 1978.

Gene Trindl/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs was the only main cast member to have appeared in all 95 episodes of the series.

While the show isn’t available to stream anywhere currently Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series was just released on DVD for the first time ever and includes 95 episodes from all four seasons.

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