'Welcome Back, Kotter': Robert Hegyes' 'Epstein' helped alter TV

"Welcome Back, Kotter" television star Robert Hegyes died Thursday, giving millions of Americans pause to reflect back in time to 1975, when Epstein, Vinnie Barbarino and the other "Sweathogs" ruled.

The plot for "Welcome Back, Kotter" might sound a little familiar to Gleeks (problem student becomes teacher, returns to old stomping grounds). And, like "Glee," the show was groundbreaking -- and plenty controversial --  when it was introduced into ABC's prime-time line-up.

The show lasted four seasons and launched John Travolta's career. But It captivated the nation with it's racially diverse cast and edgy story line involving high school misfits.

Perhaps that explains why "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "Epstein" have remained some of the most Googled terms in America since news that Hegyes died Thursday of a heart attack at his home in New Jersey.

TV historian Robert Thompson explained why "Welcome Back, Kotter," a show that was pulled from the air in 1979, struck such a chord with viewers.

To begin with, the show, which starred Gabe Kaplan as teacher to a bunch of misunderstood students, created controversy before it even aired. An ABC affiliate in Boston initially refused to air the show. At the time, the city was in the midst of a school busing crisis, and there were fears that the show's racially integrated classroom would inflame tensions. Elsewhere, teachers feared the show would glorify, and encourage, student high jinks.

It ultimately introduced America to a diverse, economically struggling slice of life rarely seen on TV.

"'Kotter' was important in that respect. You had this racially diverse cast and yet they didn't make a big deal out of it. They were integrated as something that was natural and at the time not even worthy of comment," he said. "That was a pretty progressive thing to do."

The setting itself was unique. Today's TV writers know that high school is a rich area to mine for drama, Thompson said. "You're at this stage between childhood and adulthood, you're sexually mature, but still limited by rules of childhood....  It doesn't get much more dramatic than high school," yet that territory was virtually untrod before "Welcome Back Kotter" came along, he said.

"Maybe it didn't do it as well as '90210' would later do it, but for the 1970s it did a pretty good job. It nailed high school."

It also nailed life in Brooklyn, giving the New York City borough its own identity in the shadow of glitzier Manhattan, he said. (In fact, Brooklyn got top billing in the show's intro -- see above -- as John Sebastian crooned the "Welcome Back" theme song.)

And then there were those accents. Not only weren't they watered down to appeal to Middle America, they were allowed to take center stage.

"It really allowed a heavy dialect to play," he said. "This is one of the first times that was really featured as a major part of all of the characters."

The entire cast had catch phases, which spread through the nation like wildfire at a time when there was no social media to help speed things along, like "up your nose with a rubber hose." Hegyes character, Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein -- a proud Puerto Rican Jew, as he liked to remind anyone who would listen -- was known for forging notes from "Epstein's mother."

"People haven't been talking about 'Welcome Back, Kotter' for years, but if you are of a certain age, it has always been humming somewhere in the back of your brain," said Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"There's this deep affection for people who either watched it the first time around, or saw it in reruns. When you hear some member of the cast has died, you realize how precious a show like this is to your own memory."

And when you think about the 1970s, Thompson said, you think about disco. And "Saturday Night Fever." And John Travolta. "If I had to name 10 things that say 1970s, 'Welcome Back Kotter' would be somewhere on that list," he said.

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--Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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