Gabe Kaplan may have played the title character of the classic 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, about a teacher who alternately educates and makes fun of his Sweathog-filled classroom. But from the moment the series debuted 45 years ago on September 9, 1975, it was clear to everyone that the real star was a young actor named John Travolta. As class cut-up, Vinnie Barbarino, the then-21-year-old performer became an instant heartthrob and a sought-after leading man for big-screen Hollywood hits like Carrie and Grease. “I remember feeling like I had a whole new career,” Travolta told Yahoo Entertainment during a career-spanning interview last year. “I loved my time on Kotter — I had a blast.” (Watch our full Role Recall interview above.)
But that career-making performance wouldn’t have happened if a certain individual close to Travolta had had their way. That unlikely person? His mother, Helen Cecilia Burke Travolta. As an acting teacher, she was all too aware of her son’s gifts. At the same time, she’d seen numerous careers fail to launch because actors had been typecast by their earliest roles. And the last thing she wanted was for Travolta to spend the rest of his life playing increasingly older versions of an intellectually-challenged Brooklyn loudmouth like Vinnie. “She didn’t want people to think that I had a New York accent or that I behaved in that less-than-ideal IQ way,” he recalled. “She was saving my reputation, because she didn’t think I’d ever become famous playing a dumb New York character!”
Fortunately, Travolta ignored his mother’s advice and her fears didn’t come to pass. As Kotter became one of the most popular shows on television, Travolta found his career opportunities growing rather than shrinking. From 1975 to 1979, he juggled his TV schedule with a burgeoning movie career that went supernova after 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, where he played Brooklyn-bred disco dancer, Tony Manero, who shared a zip code with Vinnie, but was otherwise his own man. At that point, Travolta could easily have said “Sayonara” to Mr. Kotter and his fellow Sweathogs. Instead, he stayed with the show until its final season, departing after the February 3, 1979 episode, “Barbarino’s Baby,” in which Vinnie is stranded with a pregnant woman in a hospital elevator and has to deliver her child. (The series aired its Travolta-less series finale in June of that year.)
According to the Travolta, former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett was the reason he opted to stick around James Buchanan High School. “She left [that show] after one year of superstardom and got in trouble for it,” he explained. “I got the memo pretty quickly that if you become big from this TV series, don’t leave it, because your movie career might get hurt! So I stayed two years longer than was kind of scheduled.” That’s career advice Mama Travolta almost certainly would have agreed with.
Welcome Back, Kotter is available to rent or purchase on Amazon.
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