The New Jersey connections to ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’
One of the more beloved sitcoms of the 1970s, Welcome Back, Kotter, debuted on September 9th, 1975 and featured a trio of New Jersey bred stars: John Travolta, Marcia Strassman, and Robert Hegyes.
The series centered on a teacher, Mr. Kotter, (played by Gabe Kaplan), who returned to his old high school to teach a class of troubled youths, known as the “Sweathogs,” Travolta, from Englewood, played one of the Sweathogs, Vinnie Barbarino, and the role launched him into stardom. He filmed Saturday Night Fever during his years on the show. Ironically, Travolta was actually a high school drop out, having left Dwight Morrow High School without graduating to pursue his acting career.
Strassman, while being born in New York, was raised in Passaic and, according to IMDB, got her first acting role on The Patty Duke Show, and played a nurse in the first season of M*A*S*H. Her Kotter role was that of Julie Kotter, the wife of the titular character who put up with Sweathogs showing up at their apartment unannounced and with listening to her husband’s endless stories. Strassman died in 2014.
Robert Hegyes was born in Perth Amboy and raised in Metuchen; he graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and worked on Broadway before being cast as Juan Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter. The character of Epstein was a Puerto Rican Jew as well as a tough guy; he often had obviously forged excuse notes, signed by Epstein’s Mother. He also had a recurring role on Cagney and Lacey in the 80s. Hegyes, according to Variety, was a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi; he died after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home in Metuchen in 2012 at the age of 60.
More from New Jersey 101.5