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12 Back-to-School Facts About Welcome Back, Kotter

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When it premiered on September 9, 1975, Welcome Back, Kotter was just another sitcom in ABC’s “new fall season” lineup. The cast was filled with television newcomers, and while the four main “students” had some film and Broadway chops, the star of the series had no acting experience whatsoever. Yet before the first season had ended, kids across America were parroting the mannerisms of Washington, Horshack, et al., the Sweathogs were being marketed in every conceivable medium, and John Travolta signed a $1 million three-picture deal with Robert Stigwood. Not bad for a show that never cracked the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings.

1. THE SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY GABE KAPLAN’S STAND-UP ROUTINE.

Kaplan was a star player on his high school baseball team and dreamed of someday playing in the major leagues. When he tanked at the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp, he headed back east and took a job as a bellman at a resort hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey. After watching the touring comedians who performed there for a few months, he decided to take a stab at stand-up. He eventually developed a routine based on his experiences in a remedial class at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School and took his act on the road. Fellow Brooklynite Alan Sacks, who was working in Los Angeles as the producer of Chico and the Man, caught Kaplan’s performance at The Comedy Store at the urging of Freddie Prinze, and a TV sitcom pitch was born.

2. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO REAL PERSONS WAS STRICTLY INTENTIONAL.

Vinnie Barbarino (originally called “Eddie Barbarini” in the pilot script) was a combination of two real-life people: Kaplan’s fellow Sweathog Eddie Lecarri, and a tough kid named Joey Caluchi that Alan Sacks knew in junior high school. Freddie “Furdy” Peyton inspired Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, and “Epstein the Animal” (as he was known at Kaplan’s alma mater) was transformed into the half Puerto Rican Juan Epstein at the suggestion of ABC’s then-head of programming, Michael Eisner. Only Arnold Horshack’s character retained his real-life counterpart’s name … although the original Arnold was so obnoxious that by the fourth grade, according to Kaplan, even the teachers began calling him “Arnold Horsesh**.”

3. ROBERT HEGYES ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR BARBARINO.

In fact, he thought he’d landed the part until he arrived to shoot the pilot. He got into an elevator with Alan Sacks and John Travolta, and Sacks introduced Travolta to him by saying, “Epstein, this is Barbarino.” “No, no, no” Hegyes corrected him, “I’m Barbarino.” “No,” Sacks repeated, “you’re Epstein, this is Barbarino.” After a brief pause Hegyes asked Sacks, “Do I get the same pay he does?” When he was assured that their salaries were equal, he replied, “OK, it’s fine with me.”

4. THE SHOW WAS SUPPOSED TO BE CALLED SIMPLY KOTTER.

But when former Lovin’ Spoonful singer John Sebastian was commissioned to write the theme song, he found it difficult to find any appropriate words (Otter? Slaughter?) that rhymed with “Kotter.” Instead he composed a tune called “Welcome Back” that evinced a warm, nostalgic feeling of a man returning home to his roots rather than a classroom full of delinquents. The title of the series was duly changed, and “Welcome Back” went on to the top of the Billboard pop chart for one week in May 1976.

5. SOME OF CHARLIE’S ANGELS WANTED TO BE MRS. KOTTER.

Both Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Kate Jackson auditioned for the role of Julie Kotter. Marcia Strassman, the actress who landed the role, became good friends with Jackson, who gifted her with a motorcycle for her 30th birthday. Sadly, not long afterward, Strassman had a nasty accident while riding that left a gash on her cheek that required 10 stitches and eventual plastic surgery to repair.

6. HORSHACK’S LAUGH CAME FROM A SAD PLACE.

Ron Palillo was 10 years old when his father died of lung cancer. He developed a severe stutter as a result of the tragedy, and his mother sent him to acting classes hoping that it would help to correct his speech problem. When Palillo auditioned for the role, he made up the character on the spot and imitated his father’s wheezy, gasping voice as he struggled to breathe during the late stage of his illness to create Horshack’s trademark laugh.

7. THE ORIGINAL CATCHPHRASES WERE MUCH RUDER.

“Up your nose with a rubber hose” as a rejoinder was as ubiquitous as “Kiss my grits” and “Dy-no-mite!” in the late 1970s. The rhyming put-down came from Gabe Kaplan’s stand-up routine; it was called “ranking,” and the most famous rank at his school (usually uttered by Horsesh** when he was at a loss for words) was “Up your hole with a Mello Roll.” (A Mello Roll was an ice cream treat popular in Brooklyn and the Bronx.) The ABC brass decided that the Mello Roll rank, along with the others submitted by Kaplan, was inappropriate for primetime TV, so they softened them a bit. Not that “Off my case, toilet face” was a bouquet of roses.

8. THREE OF THE ACTORS HIT THE BILLBOARD CHARTS WHILE WORKING ON THE SERIES.

Marcia Strassman had tried her hand at a singing career back in 1967 with little success, and John Travolta would go on to have a few hits from the Grease soundtrack. But while Kotter was in its heyday, Travolta and two of his co-stars attempted to launch recording careers: Gabe Kaplan’s novelty single “Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose” made it all the way to #91 in 1977, while Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs’ self-titled album nudged into the lower reaches of the Billboard Soul Chart in 1978. Predictably, John Travolta (who was already heading toward heartthrob status) had the most success, hitting #10 in 1976 with “Let Her In."

9. BOSTON-AREA RESIDENTS MISSED THE FIRST FOUR EPISODES.

When Welcome Back, Kotter premiered in September 1975, racial tensions were running high in Boston due to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools via forced busing. The head of Boston’s ABC affiliate decided that Kotter’s “cast of non-scholastic high schoolers might have an unhealthy influence on local students” and refused to carry the show. Four weeks later it became apparent that the Sweathogs had more in common with the Marx Brothers than with the Crips or Bloods, and the ban was lifted in time for the fifth episode to air.

10. GROUCHO MARX ALMOST MADE A CAMEO.

Gabe Kaplan managed to work his Groucho impersonation into almost every episode, and Robert Hegyes patterned Epstein after Chico Marx, so of course the two were excited when it was announced that Groucho had agreed to do a quick walk-on appearance. Marx was 86 years old at the time and in rapidly failing health. He made it to the studio, but he was barely able to walk (he leaned heavily on his “assistant” Erin Fleming) and seemingly unaware of his surroundings. The producers realized that he was in no shape to go on camera. Instead, he sat in Kaplan’s chair on the set and posed for a few pictures with the cast while Fleming pitched herself for a possible future Kotter appearance. Reportedly Marx’s appearance was so disturbing that the photos were never released.

11. THE FOUR SWEATHOGS WERE MORE POPULAR THAN FONZIE AT ONE TIME.

After the first episode of Welcome Back, Kotter aired, the four previously unknown stars were shocked to find that they couldn’t go out in public without being mobbed. The producers took advantage of their popularity and soon the Sweathogs’ faces were on everything from T-shirts to lunch boxes to board games. The network once had to fly the cast to LAX via helicopter so that they could catch their flight to New York on time. Looking down at the thousands of fans flocked around the airport, Robert Hegyes commented excitedly to Ron Palillo, “Ron! We’re the freakin’ Beatles!!” Palillo, who was more of a feet-firmly-on-the-ground kind of guy, replied, “Bobby, we’re not even the freakin’ Monkees.”

12. THERE WAS SOME SERIOUS DISSENT BEHIND THE SCENES.

The first rumblings of discontent came from Marcia Strassman, who realized by season two that her role as Mrs. Kotter was basically asking Gabe “And then what happened?” while he regaled her with one of his many stories about one of his many relatives. “I pray every day for a cancellation,” she told People magazine in 1978.

Kaplan was in a power struggle with producer James Komack, who fired most of the writing staff who’d been with the show from the start at the beginning of season four and hired the writing team from The Carol Burnett Show. Kaplan objected to the shift from high school student/teacher issues to more slapstick/blackout sketch comedy and he appeared in only a handful of episodes during the final season as a result.

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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
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Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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