70s show ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ had Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), a relatable concept & an amazing theme song

Old Welcome Back Kotter TV series - Television sitcom at Click Americana

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Welcome Back, Kotter follows the adventures of high school teacher Gabe Kotter as he returns to his old alma mater, James Buchanan High in Brooklyn, to teach the “Sweathogs.” These unruly students, much like Kotter himself in his younger days, are the underachievers of the school. Despite their antics, Kotter, with his unique blend of humor and understanding, genuinely cares for his students and wants to see them succeed.
Years on air: 1975 to 1979
# of seasons: 4
# of episodes: 95


  • Gabe Kotter played by Gabe Kaplan: A former student of James Buchanan High, he returns as a wisecracking teacher determined to guide the Sweathogs to success using humor and understanding.
  • Julie Kotter played by Marcia Strassman: Gabe’s supportive and loving wife who occasionally offers her insights about his students and the challenges of teaching.
  • Vinnie Barbarino played by John Travolta: The self-proclaimed leader of the Sweathogs. He’s charming, somewhat vain, and known for his catchphrases.
  • Arnold Horshack played by Ron Palillo: A Sweathog with a unique laugh and an earnest personality. He often exclaims “Ooh, ooh!” when he knows an answer or wants attention.
  • Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs: Another member of the Sweathogs, Freddie is smooth-talking and known for his catchphrase, “Hi there!” He’s got a talent for basketball and a heart of gold.
  • Juan Epstein played by Robert Hegyes: A proud Puerto Rican Jew, he’s the tough guy of the Sweathogs. Often tries to get out of work with notes “signed” by his mother.

First appearing on televisions across the country in September of 1975, Welcome Back, Kotter would go on to become one of America’s best-loved sitcoms.

Starring Gabe Kaplan as high school teacher Gabe Kotter, and a young John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, the show depicted Kotter’s return to his high school alma mater, teaching kids in the same remedial classes he himself went through as a student.

Welcome Back Kotter TV sitcom cast

The ABC comedy was popular with audiences, and was particularly known for the Sweathogs’ various catchphrases, launching “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” into the American vernacular.

By the time the show reached its fourth season, the actors playing the students had aged beyond being able to reasonably play high schoolers, Kaplan’s screen time was limited due to disputes behind the scenes, and Travolta appeared in only eight episodes that season while focusing on his film career. The show’s run ended in June of 1979.

But what lasts and lasts in memories is the show’s theme, “Welcome Back,” which was written and performed by former Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian. The song became a number-one hit in 1976, and continues to be one of the most indelible reminders of this classic ’70s sitcom. – AJW

Welcome Back Kotter cast

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Welcome Back Kotter: Sweathogs are a part of Gabe Kaplan’s youth

By Bill Kaltman in the Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) June 19, 1976

“Sweathogs are nothing new; they’ve been around nearly forever in every high school in the country. If it wasn’t for the colorful kids that we all grew up with, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter,’ wouldn’t be such a success,” said Gabriel Kaplan, star of the hit television series.

Sweathogs are part of Kaplan’s past, and if you think back to your own teen-age days, there likely was a deadpan Vinnie Barbarino or Arnold Horshack somewhere among the glossy pages of your high school yearbook. Kaplan, the comedian who is co-creator and stars in the ABC Thursday night series, recently explained that the characters are all drawn from real life.

Gabriel Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter sitcom
Gabriel Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter sitcom

Kaplan conceived the idea for the series with producer Alan Sacks. Since both men had similar boyhoods in Brooklyn, “it was inevitable that our common bonds helped spark our ideas,” Kaplan said.

The designation “sweathog” was made up for the series. However, it is based on a similar label given to youngsters at the bottom of the class in remedial group Kaplan recalled from his own student days, but at the time it was identified by a number rather than a name.

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“They were usually on the outside of the accepted group of students. I remember a teacher — I think it was somewhere around the 4th grade — she was a woman who cared. Kotter has a lot of her beautifully understanding attributes. This lady had the ways and means to reach a student. That’s one of Kotter’s great secrets as we see him.”

In real life, Kaplan attended Erasmus Hall High School, the large Brooklyn institution with a fortress-like exterior, located in the heart of Flatbush.

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs on Welcome Back, Kotter TV show
Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs on Welcome Back, Kotter TV show

He lived one block away from Ebbets Field, and, “if one of the Dodgers hit a high left field fly, I could see it from my window. I used to sneak in all the time. I had different gimmicks. I would tell the ticket man, for instance, that I was Duke Snider’s son.”

For some inexplicable reason, middle-class Brooklyn has spawned a staggering number of show-business names, and Kaplan is not the first nor probably the last to put the heritage to work. Kaplan said that the actors in the show were all taken from New York to provide the Brooklyn flavor and to supply the dialects.

John Travolta lit up the dance floor with his disco moves in 'Saturday Night Fever' (1977)

Some of Kotter’s students have become heroes on their own; much of the show’s enormous popularity is because of John Travolta, who plays tough-talking Vinnie Barbarino. (Travolta has become a recording star as a result of his role, is starring in an upcoming feature film and is set to be the top banana of an upcoming TV special.)

Young John Travolta as Vinne Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter
Young John Travolta as Vinne Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter

In addition to Vinnie Barbarino, the cast includes Boom Boom Washington. (Lawrence Jacobs), Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), and Jan Luis Pedro Epstein (Robert Hegyes), who along with assistant principal Michael Woodman (John Sylvester White) make up the chief characters at the fictitious James Buchanan High School. Marcia Strassman plays Kotter’s patient and enduring wife.

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The premise of the series is that Kotter has returned to teach in the high school from which he graduated only 10 years earlier. After his own high school days, Kaplan worked as a bellboy in a resort hotel, using all his extra time to watch the working stand-up comics. He put together an act and eventually landed small jobs at the coffeehouses and nightclubs.

YouTube video

“I’d stay at cheap hotels or rooming houses that most of the entertainers stayed at,” Kaplan said. “I was really very happy at that point. That’s where I developed most of the material that I started doing.”

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Acting as his own agent, Kaplan began booking himself around the country and soon landed jobs on the Playboy Club circuit. “I was young. I loved to travel, and went down to Miami, where I lived for a while. I had a ball, but every now and then, to keep my head straight, I would always work in coffeehouses and strip joints.

“You can always maintain your perspective when you’re dealing with a hip, eager young audience that’s mercilessly candid in what they like and what they don’t like.”

Welcome Back Kotter TV show debuted in 1975

Welcome Back, Kotter theme song & video clip

The opening credits for this sitcom, featuring the memorable “Welcome Back” theme song.

YouTube video

Welcome Back, Kotter lyrics

“Welcome Back” by John Sebastian

Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out
Welcome back 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 have thought they’d lead ya
(Who’d have thought they’d lead ya)
Back here where we need ya
(Back here where we need ya)
Yeah, we tease him a lot ’cause we got him on the spot
Welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back

We always could spot a friend, welcome back
And I smile when I think how you must have been
And I know what a scene you were learning in
Was there something that made you come back again?
And what could ever lead ya
(What could ever lead ya)
Back here where we need ya
(Back here where we need ya)
Yeah we tease him a lot ’cause we got him on the spot
Welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back
Yeah we tease him a lot
Welcome back, welcome back,
’cause we got him on the spot
Welcome back, welcome back
Yeah we tease him a lot ’cause we got him on the spot
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. I thought “Kotter” was brilliant and utterly hilarious, and I was hardly alone; everyone had their Arnold Horshack impressions down pat, and all the girls wore Vinnie Barbarino t-shirts. My favorite bit was how the guys would always come in through Kotter’s apartment window unannounced. I couldn’t imagine doing that to any of my teachers! Yet I rarely got to watch the show because it aired on Thursday nights when I always had something else to do (Boy Scouts, etc.). And of course, this was long before VCRs and streaming, so when you missed a show, too bad. The best I could do was catch summer reruns.

    1. And who can forget all the catchphrases? Next to SNL, “Kotter” was the biggest catchphrase machine around. “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” and “Sit on it!” were just a couple…

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