'Welcome Back, Kotter': 25 Things You Never Knew About the Sweathogs
Which classic '70s sitcom, one that launched the career of a Hollywood superstar and dropped several memorable characters and catchphrases into TV history, is being released as a complete series DVD boxed set?
Oooh-oooh-oooh, we've got the answer: It's Welcome Back, Kotter, the 1975-1979 ABC sitcom hit that marked the beginning of John Travolta's Oscar-nominated career, made the Sweathogs iconic TV high schoolers, and suggested that a nasal cavity was an appropriate place for an elastic gardening implement.
But how much do you know about Mr. Kott-air, Barbarino, Horshack, Epstein, Washington, and how the Sweathogs made it to primetime? We've got 25 facts that might surprise even the most devoted Kotter aficionado.
1. Welcome Back, Kaplan
James Buchanan High School, home of the Sweathogs in Welcome Back, Kotter, is fictional. But it was based on series star and stand-up comedian Gabe Kaplan's real-life experiences as a remedial student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, where Kaplan's fellow alumni include DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen, Entourage star Jerry Ferrara, Scott Baio, Buddy Hackett, and Three Stooges brothers Moe and Curly Howard.
2. Arnold Horshack's a Real Dude
The series was more specifically inspired by Kaplan's high school friends, whom he described in his famous "Holes and Mello Rolls" routine. Three of the four Sweathogs' character names were tweaked from their real-world counterparts, but Arnold Horshack was the real name of the Kaplan pal who inspired Ron Palillo's beloved Kotter student.
3. Up Your Nose With a… Frozen Dessert?
The real-life Horshack also inspired one of the series' most popular catchphrases. Mello rolls were roll-shaped ice cream treats popular in the New York area in the 1950s, and when Horshack wanted to insult — or "rank" on, as Kaplan described it — someone, he would tell them, "Up your hole with a Mello roll." The phrase was considered too naughty for TV use, so the phrase was changed to "Up your nose with a rubber hose" when John Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino spouted his signature rank on Kotter.
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4. "Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose": The Single
In January 1977, Kaplan wrote and recorded a novelty song called "Up Your Nose," with lyrics that included, "Up your nose / With a rubber hose / Twice as far / With a chocolate bar / In your ear brother / With a can of beer sister / If you don't like that / Try a baseball bat." The tune peaked at No. 91 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
5. Vinnie Barbarino: Balladeer
Other Kotter stars capitalized on the show's fame to release songs, too. Travolta had a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1976 with the ballad "Let Her In," while Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington) released the tune "Fly Away (To My Wonderland)" in 1978. Hilton-Jacobs worked with Motown legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter Lamont Dozier ("Heat Wave," "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)," and "Stop! In the Name of Love") on the tune, and, he told Jet magazine in 2008, he later sang background vocals on Rick James's signature hit "Super Freak."
Video of Travolta performing "Let Her In" on "American Bandstand" in 1976 is the delightful epitome of '70s bubblegum cheesiness:
6. The Greatest TV Theme Song Ever?
Another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, John Sebastian, had the series' real musical breakout. Not only did his theme song, "Welcome Back," hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but also it sparked a title change for the show. Kotter was the original title, but after Sebastian wrote the theme to so perfectly mirror Mr. Kotter's relationship with his students, producers changed the series title to Welcome Back, Kotter.
7. Everybody Loves Kotter
Casting almosts: Pre-Charlie's Angels, Farrah Fawcett auditioned for the role of Julie Kotter, which went to Marcia Strassman.
And Horshack's mother was almost played by Everybody Loves Raymond mama Doris Roberts, until producer James Komack lobbied for John Travolta's sister Ellen to get the role, according to the book Mickey Rooney as Archie Bunker and Other TV Casting Almosts, by Eila Mell.
8. Have You Seen My Barbarino Earrings?
The show's debut season — which was nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy — was such an immediate hit with younger viewers that a plethora of Welcome Back, Kotter merchandise hit stores, including lunchboxes, a DC Comics comic book series, trading cards, coloring books, record players, Sweathog Halloween costumes, board games, jewelry, and even Sweathog action figures and a Mr. Kotter's-classroom play set.
9. The POTUS Loves the Sweathogs
Ron Palillo told People magazine that the show was so popular, he was asked not to visit Disneyland, because park officials were concerned that they couldn't provide him with enough security.
Meanwhile, Kaplan was invited to visit the White House in 1977, where he learned that President Jimmy Carter was also a fan of the show. Sorta. "Mr. Kaplan, nice to meet you," the POTUS said. "And when you go back to California, say hello to the Groundhogs."
10. John Travolta, Mail Man
By the second season of Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta was receiving more than 10,000 fan letters a week.
11. Which Sweathog Was a Dropout?
The Sweathogs and education: Palillo and Robert Hegyes, who played Epstein (full name: Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein), became teachers post-Kotter; Hilton-Jacobs played the Stars Hollow High principal on Gilmore Girls; and Travolta dropped out of Dwight Morrow High School in New Jersey at age 16 to move to Manhattan and pursue his acting career.
12. Sweathog Spinoff
Kotter sparked one spinoff series: Mr. T and Tina, which ran for five episodes in 1976 and featured Happy Days and The Karate Kid star Pat Morita as a Japanese inventor named Taro Takahashi. Takahashi had appeared in the Kotter Season 2 premiere, "Career Day," when he tried to lure Mr. Kotter away from his Sweathog teaching gig with a job at his company.
13. All in the Horshack Family
Another planned Kotter spinoff never made it past the development stage. But a pair of Season 2 episodes called "Whatever Happened to Arnold" and "There Goes Number 5" set up the series, which would have revolved around Horshack and his family after the death of his fourth stepfather. Broadway star Andrea McArdle — who earned a Tony nomination for her debut as the star of Annie in 1977 — guest-starred as Arnold's sister Doris.
14. Surprising Guest Stars
George Carlin guest-starred as a DJ in the Season 2 episode "Radio Free Freddie," while eventual Emmy and Golden Globe winner (and Oscar nominee) James Woods guest-starred as a teacher in the Welcome Back, Kotter series premiere.
15. The Godfather
Hegyes originally auditioned for the role of Vinnie Barbarino — all four main Sweathog actors' auditions are included on the Kotter complete series DVD set — and thought that was the role he would be playing when he was hired. It wasn't until he showed up for a meeting and was introduced by series co-creator Alan Sacks to John Travolta, who would be playing Barbarino, that he learned he would be playing Juan Epstein. Hegyes, who died of a heart attack in 2012, later chose Travolta to be the godfather of his daughter, Cassie.
16. Garry Shandling and Celebrity Boxing
Emmy winner Garry Shandling wrote the Season 2 Welcome Back, Kotter episode "Horshack vs. Carvelli," in which Horshack opposed Sweathog enemy Carvelli (Who Framed Roger Rabbit star Charles Fleischer) in a boxing match. In 2002, Palillo agreed to a real-life boxing match for Fox's ill-conceived reality series Celebrity Boxing, in which the former Sweathog went toe to toe with Dustin Diamond, who played Horshack knockoff Screech from Saved by the Bell. After Diamond knocked Palillo down twice, the bout was stopped in the second round, and Diamond emerged with the victory, while Palillo, who was 20 years older than his opponent, emerged with two black eyes. Palillo, who was also an artist and playwright, died of a heart attack in August 2012, just seven months after the death of Hegyes.
17. Quentin Tarantino, Sweathog Style
The Sweathog actors starred in a pair of funny Kotter spoofs long after the 1979 series finale. In a 1994 episode of Saturday Night Live, host John Travolta played Vinnie in the sketch "Quentin Tarantino's Welcome Back, Kotter," as Barbarino, his fellow Sweathogs (Adam Sandler as Epstein, David Spade as Horshack, and Tim Meadows as Washington), Kotter (Mike Myers), Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David L. Lander) from Laverne and Shirley, and Reservoir Dogs character Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) get revenge against nasty Vice Principal Woodman (Jay Mohr).
And at the 1995 MTV Movie Awards, Palillo, Hilton-Jacobs, and Hegyes starred in a Pulp Fiction spoof that put the Sweathog spin on the "Royale with cheese" scene for that year's Best Movie winner at the Movie Awards.
18. Mr. Kotter: The Great Educator (Seriously)
In the April 1980 issue of Educational Leadership magazine, educator Richard R. Benedict wrote an article titled The Kotter Key to Educating Disadvantaged Students, which argued that Mr. Kotter's teaching methods should be employed in the real world. "In classrooms where teachers are simultaneously considerate and less structured, success of the disadvantaged student is the rule," Benedict wrote.
[Related: 25 Things You Never Knew About 'Hill Street Blues']
19. Welcome Back, Ice Cube
Ice Cube has already starred in the big-screen adaptation of 21 Jump Street, and he's also scheduled to star in and produce a big-screen redo of Welcome Back, Kotter. The movie, which has been in development since 2006, was conceived as a comedy in which Ice Cube plays Mr. Kotter, a former inner-city student who returns to his alma mater to teach a new generation of high schoolers. No other cast members have been announced, but Ice Cube has confirmed that the Sweathog characters' names will remain the same and that he plans to ask the surviving TV stars, including Travolta, to make cameo appearances.
20. Sweathog Supercuts?
Alan Sacks told the Palm Beach Post in 2012 that at one point, he and Gabe Kaplan had been developing a Welcome Back, Kotter movie in which an adult Horshack would be a gay man working as a beautician.
21. High School Seniors
Kotter ended after just four seasons; despite being a huge hit as soon as it premiered, behind-the-scenes squabbles, fewer appearances by Gabe Kaplan and breakout star Travolta, and increasingly kookier story lines led to diminishing ratings
"I thought that we were really stretching the limits of believability and credibility. The guys were like in their mid-20s," Kaplan told the Seattle Times in 2007. "They were remedial, but how remedial can you be? How long are you going to stay in high school? So I said, 'Look, let's have Kotter get a job at a junior college and then the first day look who shows up... It might not work, but at least we take a shot at it.' And they were so scared of it not working, and they said, 'No, no, we can still do it.' And I said basically, 'Look, I can't be a major part of this anymore. It's starting to look really strange.' And they said, 'Well, that's the way we're going to go.' So I was only on a few episodes of the fourth year, and John Travolta was only [on] a few episodes of the fourth year, so the show sort of was like Kotter in The Twilight Zone."
Gene Perret, part of a group of Carol Burnett Show writers who took over Kotter writing duties for Season 4, wrote in his book Tales From the Script: The Behind-the-Camera Adventures of a TV Comedy Writer that Kaplan had had a lot of problems with the plots that season, and even Perret admitted that the stories had gotten "silly." "We were as guilty as the other staffs," Perret wrote. "In one show, we had [Horshack] take his first alcoholic drink, become a raging alcoholic, see the error of his ways, and cure himself of his addiction, all in the space of about 23 minutes of airtime."
[Related: 25 Things You Didn't Know About 'Murphy Brown']
22. Kotter vs. Kotter
About those squabbles… Marcia Strassman, who played Mrs. Kotter, had such ill feelings about co-star Kaplan that she told People magazine in 1978 that she hoped the show would be canceled. "I'm miserable," Strassman told the magazine. "Gabe runs hot and cold, one day your best friend, the next day not speaking. Even blatant hostility would be easier to deal with. It has always been hard to act with him, especially in intimate scenes. I hate the series. I pray every day for a cancellation." Strassman's role increased in Season 4 — she became a teacher at Buchanan High when her husband was promoted to vice principal — but she got her wish when the series ended in June 1979 without even a proper series finale.
23. Beau Doesn't Know Sweathogging
Another Season 4 misfire: the addition of Stephen Shortridge as Beau De Labarre, a tall, handsome transfer student, into the Sweathog classroom in an attempt to fill the void left by the absence of Barbarino (Travolta's post-Grease career had taken off, and he agreed to appear in just nine Season 4 episodes). Southern charmer Beau failed to charm viewers. Shortridge, however, went on to other TV roles, including being a member of the original cast of The Bold and the Beautiful, and now lives in Idaho, where he's a romantic impressionist painter and author.
24. Sweathoggian Marx-ism
Both Hegyes and Kaplan were huge Marx Brothers fans, with Hegyes modeling his portrayal of Juan Epstein on Chico Marx and Kaplan frequently doing Groucho imitations on the show (and later starring as Groucho in a stage show co-written by Groucho's son, Arthur). So both were thrilled when the real Groucho booked a guest appearance on Kotter.
In October 1976, Groucho arrived at the set of Season 2's "Sadie Hawkins Day" episode and was scheduled to make a cameo at the end of the episode. But, as Kotter story editor Mark Evanier wrote on his website, Groucho was in such poor health when he showed up that it was quickly determined he was too sick to appear on camera. In fact, the Kotter cast took photos with the comedy legend, but the pictures were never released because of Groucho's frail appearance.
25. All's Kotter That Ends Kotter
Ultimately, all seems to have been forgiven, and bad Kotter memories have faded for the cast. In 2011, Kaplan, Hegyes, Hilton-Jacobs, Strassman, and the Travoltas (John and Ellen) reunited to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Welcome Back, Kotter at the TV Land Awards in New York. They also sat down for a Good Morning America interview, in which they agreed that they were lucky to have worked with each other and continued to have affection for one another 35 years later.
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series DVD boxed set is available from Shout! Factory now.