Welcome back, indeed. After spending the past two decades or so off the grid, Gabe Kaplan has resurfaced on the pop-culture radar.
Welcome back, indeed.
After spending the past two decades or so off the grid, Gabe Kaplan has resurfaced on the pop-culture radar. The first season of his classic 1975 sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter” (Warner, $29.98), has hit DVD with a retrospective and screen tests.
I wished Kaplan a fond up-your-nose-with-a-rubber-hose a few days before his stop in Seattle to promote the new volume of e-mail pranks, “Kotter’s Back — E-mails from a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World” ($15.95, Simon & Schuster). He was on the phone in L.A., where he lives with his 16-year-old daughter.
Q: You are the Greta Garbo of ’70s sitcom stars. Or the Groucho Garbo.
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A: Yeah, I think that’s why some of the e-mails are effective. I don’t think they would be effective coming from somebody who was more visible. I think people will believe anything about someone they haven’t seen for a while.
Q: People gave you the benefit of the doubt because you’re a Beloved Pop Culture Icon or something. Have any victims gotten angry?
A: Actually, no one’s gotten angry, but I did ask everybody if they wanted to be in it. And only about four or five people said they didn’t want to be in. One of them was Jerry Falwell, who I contacted about seven or eight months ago, who just declined to be in.
Q: Bet you never hear this question: What the hell happened to you? I mean, what have you been doing?
A: Well, after “Kotter” went off the air, I did another sitcom and that didn’t work. And then I started getting offers to do the third and fourth part on a sitcom or game shows, or go through the normal transition period that a celebrity who’s in decline goes through, where you try your best to get back on top and you do whatever’s offered you and you try to make the best of it. And I decided, “Hey I don’t want to do this. I really don’t want to perform wherever I can. I’ve been a comedian since I was 18. I don’t need to act. It’s not something I’m not fulfilled if I don’t do.”
I mean, I would have loved to have kept on being a big television star. If that’s the way things would have broke, I would have loved to have done that. I just didn’t really want to continue and be someone who took whatever was offered.
So I had been dabbling in the financial markets while “Kotter” was on and I just started to do more of that and get involved in other things. I had more time to travel. When my daughter came, I had time to spend with her. I did the “Groucho” play. I still did some stand-up. I did some corporate work, and mostly financial investing. My slate was pretty full, although I was not visible. I basically turned down everything that was offered to me.
Q: Now you’re carrying on the proud tradition of epistolary comedy. Which sounds more highfalutin than “winding people up with preposterous e-mails.”
A: Yeah, I think that it’s amazing how people react to other people. Checking my inbox in the morning was an adventure, just seeing how people reacted to me. I would never write these e-mails now. It was just something I got into for that period of like a year where I enjoyed doing it. I wasn’t embarrassed sending a picture of myself in my underwear to a porno producer —
Q: You’re a bear of a man, by the way.
A: [Laughs.] I’m in one of the best shapes for a 58-year-old guy you’ll ever see. I actually stuffed a sock in there so it looked like I was packing a little more than I really was.
Q: You propose a memoir about breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record for sex partners, a gambling camp for kids, and you claim that Stalin was a practitioner of “genital origami.” Which he may have been, but then had everyone in the audience killed. And their classmates.
A: Right. [Laughing.] That was kind of interesting because I sent that to a professor of Russian history at Yale, and he forwarded it around to the intelligentsia community in New York saying, “Could there possibly be any truth to this? Is this a joke or does this guy seriously believe this, or is there any chance that this is true?” And then Radar magazine got ahold of it and called me and said, “The academic community is wondering if this is a joke or if you seriously believe this, and if you do what’s your proof?” So I had to tell Radar that it was basically a joke. But before I told them, they printed the article, assuming it was a joke but just putting a little room for “Hey, maybe this is true.”
Q: You competed in “Battle of the Network Stars.” How did it feel to beat Robert Conrad in a sprint?
A: Well, you see, Robert Conrad looks like a macho athlete. He was doing the knock-the-battery-off-my-shoulder deal at the time and people thought that he was a real athlete. And I look like a guy that should be hanging around a delicatessen, so it didn’t seem fair that we were going to have a run-off on a disputed race. But I knew that I was going to kill him, because I ran track and I was a baseball player, and I knew that at the time he was like 40-something and I was like 29. It wasn’t a race.
Q: Do you ever watch urban-teacher movies like “Half Nelson” and “Dangerous Minds” and think, “They !@#$% ripped off Kotter!”
A: Well, they were doing teacher movies before “Kotter.” In fact some people were wary that “Kotter” was going to be a funny “Blackboard Jungle,” but it really never materialized because the guys weren’t threatening. But teachers in schools are always a great premise for movies, and I think maybe some of them have taken something from Kotter.
I don’t know if a teacher like Kotter really exists. Who’s going to let students come to his house and climb in through his window through the fire escape? “Oh, come on in!” What’s any real person going to do?
Q: Shoot them.
A: Yeah. When I’m teaching, when I’m in school, you’re my students and I’ll devote my time, but I’m home with my wife, this is my time now. But Kotter was, “Hey, come on in!” I think Kotter was the teacher that I wanted to have and that everybody wanted to have.
Q: Is it true that Ice Cube is going to star in a “Kotter” movie?
A: Well, the Weinstein Co. optioned the movie rights to “Welcome Back Kotter” and they want to urbanize it and get Ice Cube to play Mr. Kotter and have the same Sweathogs. And I think it can work if they get the right script, and they’ve asked all of us to do cameos, so I’m just waiting to see the script, and if it’s good I’d love to do a cameo.
Q: What happened in the show’s fourth year?
A: Well, I thought that we were really stretching the limits of believability and credibility. The guys were like in their mid-20s.
Q: Well they were remedial.
A: Yeah, they were remedial, but how remedial can you be? How long are you going to stay in high school? So I said, “Look, let’s have Kotter get a job at a junior college and then the first day look who shows up. And we have the show move on and we try. It might not work but at least we take a shot at it.” And they were so scared of it not working and they said, “No, no, we can still do it.” And I said basically, “Look, I can’t be a major part of this anymore. It’s starting to look really strange.” And they said, “Well, that’s the way we’re going to go.” So I was only on a few episodes of the fourth year and John Travolta was only a few episodes of the fourth year, so the show sort of was like Kotter in the Twilight Zone.
Q: Has Travolta gotten in touch about that Scientology business?
A: No, he really didn’t bother anybody with that on the set. It was his thing. He was doing it way back then. He really hasn’t gotten in touch with me much at all. We saw each other at the ABC 50th anniversary. That was like the first time the six of us had gotten together in one place. I maybe think I’ve seen him once since the show went off the air. But we always got along and he’s a fun guy to work with. He’s really inventive and really comedic and he was really into the character and knew that this was a big shot for him, and he made the most of it.
Web extras from Kaplan’s interview
Q: This book came out of an invitation to put on the gloves for “Celebrity Boxing”?
A: Yes, I had been invited to do most of the celebrity reality shows that were on about four or five years ago. And I didn’t want to do them, but I didn’t find anything wrong with them. But “Celebrity Boxing” especially, asking a 58-year-old ex-television star to get on television and box another 50- or 60-year-old ex-television star, because basically their careers are over and all you could do now is throw them in the coliseum and the lions are waiting in the background and the loser — because no one who’s got any kind of career would do anything like that, and all the people who did it were people that just needed attention.
There was something so wrong about it and so distasteful to me, that I didn’t want to answer them seriously. So when they asked me who I wanted to fight, if I wanted to fight, I said, “Yeah, I’ll fight, but I’d like to fight Conrad Bain, Mr. Drummond [from “Diff’rent Strokes”]. Get him in the ring.” And they said he’s too old. I said, “How about Adam West? How about Batman? He’s only 70. Can I fight him?” And the more outrageous my demands were, it didn’t seem to dissuade them.
Q: Didn’t Ron Palillo do one of these?
A: Yes, I think that’s where they came up with the ideas. There was two of them and Ron Palillo [Horshack on “Kotter”] got his ass kicked by Screech from “Saved by the Bell.” And he really got hurt. He broke his nose and he was in bad shape with bumps and bruises for a couple of weeks. And he was telling me that he had never boxed. He was about 20 years older than Screech, about 50 pounds lighter and 6 inches shorter. It was not a match. Screech had filled out by this time. He was not Screech from “SBTB” anymore, he was an in-shape strong young man fighting Ron Palillo, and Ron could have got more injured than he did, really. So the fact that they wanted to go older than Ron and get older guys in there to box, the whole thing was just so out of left field that this is the entertainment that America wanted to see.
Q: My money was on Barbarino to end up in a “Requiem for a Heavyweight” thing and Horshack to hit it big. Boy, did I back the wrong horse.
A: Horshack would have been the Mickey Rooney guy?
Q: When you hear John Sebastian’s theme song now, do you a) clench up or b) tear up?
A: I go through different periods where sometimes you get sick of hearing it and sometimes you hear it and it brings back memories, you think about what happened doing the show, what happened on a particular night, where I was when I heard it for the first time. When I go on a book tour like this, I start hearing it. I call up radio stations and they all play it right before they introduce me, so I hear it a lot. But it’s definitely a part of my life, and it’s just like some song that you really love, but when you start hearing it too much you say all right, I’ve had enough of it at this period.
Q: What was it like having a hit show in the’70s? “Scarface”-sized mountains of coke and a DeLorean in the driveway?
A: Well, it just depended on your lifestyle. I’m sure a lot of people were into that. It was not my thing. The show was everything to me. I was really focused in on the show. I worked with the actors on rehearsals and I worked with the writers at night. That was my life, “Welcome Back Kotter” for the first three of the four years it was on I was totally involved with everything that happened on the show. So I really started to have more fun after it went off the air, and then I could go places and do things, but drugs or being a celebrity was never something that really appealed to me, so I stayed away from celebrity places.
Q: You’ve been getting back into stand-up, right?
A: A little bit. I don’t do clubs or casinos. I do some corporate stand-up where it’s a little motivational but mostly funny, and I talk about whatever industry it is because I have relationships and have been involved in businesses with insurance companies, with medical companies, restaurant chains, so I know a lot about different businesses and I can look at it from the perspective of the people who are at the conference. Maybe 10 times a year I’ll do a corporate date, but no casinos or no nightclubs or no comedy clubs.
Q: Have you gone blue like Bob Saget?
A: No, not at all. I think he’s very funny but that’s just not my thing. I think I am in the book. That’s the bluest I’ve ever been in my life when I wrote the rap song. I said all right, I’ve got to write it like a rap song. I can’t write a milquetoast rap song, I’ve got to write a real rap song. So I wrote a rap song and some of the things I’ve said is the far-est out I’ve ever been as a comedian, especially with language.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com