Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Having previously built the popular situation comedy Chico and the Man around the monologues of standup comic Freddie Prinze, producer James Komack followed the same formula in fashioning a sitcom vehicle for another "hot" comic, Gabriel Kaplan. Debuting September 9, 1975 on ABC, Welcome Back Kotter was co-created (with Allan Sacks) by Kaplan, inspired by the routines he'd performed about his own experience while attending a remedial high school class in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. One of his teachers care enough to spur Kaplan to improve himself, and the comedian dedicated his series to that person. Kaplan starred as teacher Gabe Kotter, who, ten years after graduating from Brooklyn's James Buchanan High School, returned to his alma mater to take over the "sweathog" class, comprised of underachievers who'd been written off as "hopeless" by vice principal Michael Woodman (John Sylvester White). Having once been a "sweathog" himself, Kotter empathized with his students, and used a variety of unorthodox but effective techniques to teach them history and social studies, and to curb their enthusiasms in his home-room class. Meanwhile, Mr. Woodman did everything he could to undermine Kotter, whom he still remembered as one of Buchanan's biggest (and funniest) troublemakers. Each episode opened with Kotter telling a joke about his family to his loyal wife Julie (Marcia Strassman), then segued into a session with the Sweathogs. The self-appointed leader of the class was swaggering Vinnie Barbarino, which proved to be a breakthrough role for future movie superstar John Travolta). Vinnie's fellow students included nerdish Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), he of the braying laugh and constant shouts of "Ooo! Ooo!"; Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a quick-witted Jewish Puerto Rican who frequently played "Chico Marx" to Mr. Kotter's "Groucho" in their wisecrack-laden dialogue exchanges; and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (later a prolific film and TV producer) as Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington, a cool black dude with a well-hidden streak of sensitivity. Halfway through season three, Melonie Haller joined cast as Angie Globagoski, loudly proclaiming her intention to be Buchanan's first "female sweathog." When John Travolta's film commitments prevented him from making anything more than token appearances in Season Four, a potential "Vinnie" replacement was introduced in the form of Beau De Labarre (Stephen Shortridge), a Southern-born charmer who was not so much an underachiever as he was an incorrigible prankster, which fact had previously gotten him expelled from seven different schools. Depite the popularity of Gabriel Kaplan and John Travolta, Welcome Back Kotter never cracked the "Top Ten" ratings list, possibly because ABC kept moving its time slot, from Tuesday to Thursday to Monday to Saturday, and finally Friday. Even so, the series had a loyal following, enabling it to remain in active production for 95 half-hour episodes. The series' now-famous theme song was written and performed by John Sebastian. Welcome Back Kotter ending its ABC run on August 3, 1979.