Happy Birthday Gabe Kaplan, Star of 1970s Sitcom ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’

by Suzanne Halliburton

Happy birthday, Gabe Kaplan! We need Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington to start a bass line. And let’s have Vinnie Barbarino kick off the serenade.

Sweathogs, everywhere, throw a big party for your favorite teacher’s 76th trip around the sun. So up your nose with a rubber hose, let’s celebrate Gabe Kaplan, the actor, comedian and poker player, extraordinaire.

Gabe Kaplan Based A lot of His Comedy on His High School Life in Brooklyn

Gabe Kaplan began honing his comedy act in the 1960s. He worked as a hotel bellman where a number of comedians performed. So he studied them while on the job. He liked to joke about what he knew. And that was growing up in Brooklyn.

Johnny Carson invited Kaplan to appear five times on The Tonight Show during an 18-month span from 1973 to 74. He also recorded the comedy album Holes and Mello-Rolls. And it all led to Welcome Back, Kotter. Kaplan helped develop the characters. They were all based on friends he knew in high school. Except in the series, Kaplan wasn’t one of the students. He was the cool, funny teacher.

The show ran from 1975-79. It ranked in the top 20 the first two seasons, then the ratings slipped.

While other sit-coms focused on the typical student stereotypes — athletes, nerds, cheerleaders — this one celebrated those in the remedial class. They were dubbed the Sweathogs, the loafers and coasters of James Buchanan High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Back in the day, Gabe Kaplan was a Sweathog.

The show launched the career of John Travolta, aka Vinnie Barbarino. And oooo, oooo, oooo, there was Arnold Horshack. Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington also played basketball. Juan Epstein always brought notes from his mother to get out of various activities. They always were signed by “Epstein’s Mother.”

Even the theme song to Welcome Back Kotter was popular. John Sebastian, the former lead singer of Lovin’ Spoonful, sang the theme. It hit No. 1 on the pop charts in 1976.

But Gabe Kaplan wasn’t just Gabe Kotter. He also was a champion poker player.

Kaplan Played Poker and Hosted Poker Shows

Kaplan first appeared on the World Series of Poker in 1978. In 1980, he won Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker. He won $190,000 in the tournament. Sweet. He made the final table two more times within the next five years. The tournament was considered one of the most prestigious in the country.

In a more recent trend, Gabe Kaplan started playing in the Poker After Dark series. He also co-hosted High Stakes Poker on GSN.

His poker winnings exceed $2 million.

Plus, Kaplan liked to make investments. His net worth is estimated at $50 million.

So gather all the Sweathogs. It’s time to party. Gabe Kaplan, Mr. Kotter, is 76.