66 years ago, on Saturday, March 31, 1945, Gabriel Kaplan was born in Brooklyn. Since then he has been a stand-up comedian, a financial investor, and a champion poker player… but most people know him as the creator and star of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
The sitcom about a man who becomes a teacher in his old high school premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. It also made stars out of Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta.
Kaplan started doing stand-up in the late 1960s and by the early 70s got the break every comic dreamed of – a spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” More TV appearances followed and then Kaplan recorded a comedy album called, Holes and Mellow Rolls. As he explained in his routine, a mellow roll was a kind of ice pop. The album’s title referred to the insults or “ranks” he and his friends used to say to each other in high school. “Up your hole with a mellow roll,” “in your ear with a can of beer,” “up your nose with a rubber hose.”
It was that part of his stand-up act that drew the most attention and allowed Gabe Kaplan (along with Alan Sacks) to create a sitcom based on his high school experiences. The premise had Gabe Kotter (once a remedial student or “sweathog”) return to teach the current “sweathogs” at his old high school. And it became a hit.
During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. And since Gabe Kaplan was actually from Brooklyn a friend and I decided we should interview his parents for our school newspaper. We looked in the phone book and found a listing for Kaplan in the correct neighborhood. My friend called and did the talking. Gabe Kaplan’s mother agreed to let us come to their home to interview them. She asked us to call back the following week to set a date.
When we called again Mrs. Kaplan said Gabe never heard of our high school and didn’t think it was a real school. So he told her not to do the interview, and that was the end of it.
Months, maybe years, later I saw Gabe Kaplan on a talk show discussing fame. He said that when “Welcome Back, Kotter” became a hit people would call his parents pretending to be from phony high schools just to score an interview. I always wondered if he meant us.
For the record, we were real, our high school was real, and the interview request was real. Our school — Edward R. Murrow High School — was brand new and in just its second year of existence. That may be why Kaplan (out in Hollywood) had never heard of it. And I suppose “Edward R. Murrow” would’ve been a great name to use for a made-up school.
After “Welcome Back, Kotter” Kaplan starred in several films and gave sitcoms one more try with “Lewis & Clark” (1981-82). His next act led him to the financial markets and then professional poker.
Since the late 1970s Gabe Kaplan has been a champion poker player participating in the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker, and winning the Super Bowl of Poker Main Event in 1980. Kaplan has earned more than $1-million playing poker professionally.
He has also been a poker TV commentator, most notably for 6 seasons on “High Stakes Poker” on GSN.
The cast of “Welcome Back, Kotter” will be honored at this year’s TV Land Awards in April. All the living former cast members: Gabe Kaplan, Marcia Strassman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (aka Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, and even John Travolta are planning to attend. And if anybody’s a no-show? “Up your hole with a mellow roll.”
Oh… and Happy Birthday Gabe.