Having struck a chord with audiences with his stand-up comedy, Gabe Kaplan used his stage routine as inspiration for the wildly popular series "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79). A ratings hit and cultural landmark for most of its four-year run, the sitcom - which centered on his wisecracking high school teacher who contends with an unruly bunch of underachievers nicknamed Sweathogs - turned Kaplan into a household name. While most other performers would have looked for ways to exploit their success, Kaplan appeared content with shying away from the limelight to focus instead on ventures outside Hollywood, namely financial investments and tournament poker. He did star in several features like "Fast Break" (1979), "Nobody's Perfekt" (1981) and "Tulips" (1981), and even starred in another, albeit short-lived sitcom, "Lewis & Clark" (NBC, 1981-82). But Kaplan was that rare celebrity who sought neither fame nor recognition. In fact, he delved head-first into the poker world long before it became popular in the 2000s, winning a number of competitions and even becoming a host for televised events. Meanwhile, Kaplan turned another lifelong obsession, Groucho Marx, into a popular one-man stage show, "Groucho: A Life in Review," which he routinely performed throughout the decades. Regardless of his aversion to being a celebrity, Kaplan remained a notable figure whose brief foray into popular culture made a lasting impact.
Born on March 31, 1944 in Brooklyn, NY, Kaplan found his earliest passion in baseball and briefly considered a professional career until he was unable to land a spot on even a minor league team. Disappointed, he found work as a bellman at a resort in New Jersey that featured regular performances by stand-up comics in its nightclub. Convinced that he could do as well as them, if not better, Kaplan honed an act and began playing the nightclub and coffeehouse circuits across the country. Kaplan found that material based on his own childhood and school years struck a particular chord with audiences, so he began to hone personal stories for his act. One routine that earned the biggest laughs was called "Holes and Mellow Rolls" - later the title of his 1974 comedy album - which focused on his eccentric classmates in remedial classes. These gags not only gave Kaplan a passport to wider exposure on talk shows like "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), but caught the attention of producers Alan Sacks and Eric Cohen, who tapped Kaplan to develop a television series based on his formative years.
The result was "Welcome Back, Kotter," which cast Kaplan as Gabe Kotter, a former remedial student who returns to his old high school in Brooklyn to teach a new crew of difficult students, collectively known as the Sweathogs. The show was driven by Kaplan's interaction with his main Sweathogs - played by then-newcomers John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillio - who often made life difficult for Kotter's wife (Marcia Strassman) and boss (John Sylvester White). Kaplan essentially played a stand-up version of himself, a somewhat stiff but amiable guy who was quick with a quip or an insult and fond of telling outlandish stories about members of his family, usually in a beginning and end joke session with his wife, Julie (Marcia Stassman). The combination of Kaplan's humor and the charm of the Sweathogs - particularly Travolta, who immediately skyrocketed to stardom - soon made "Kotter" a Top 10 hit for ABC and a cash cow for its producers, thanks to relentless merchandising. The show also earned four Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1976.
Meanwhile, the ratings for "Kotter" began to slip during its third season. Travolta's growing popularity in features led to fewer appearances on the show, and replacement Sweathogs failed to make up for his absence. Kaplan himself later suggested that the Sweathogs' obvious advanced age - Ron Palillo was 30 at the time of the final season - ate away at the show's plausibility, so he suggested that Kotter and his crew move on to a local community college to continue their antics. The show's producers, however, resorted to gimmicks like twin daughters for the Kotters and new characters, including a few female Sweathogs, but none of the moves stopped the show's decline. "Kotter" was officially cancelled in 1979. Post-"Kotter," Kaplan returned to his stand-up career while dabbling in feature films. He starred in three theatrical releases during his "Kotter" heyday, playing a basketball coach in "Fast Break" (1979), appearing with Robert Klein and Alex Karras as three neurotic friends taking on their local government over a pothole in "Nobody's Perfekt" (1981), and the romantic comedy "Tulips" (1981), which Kaplan co-wrote. None of the three movies found a significant audience.
The same fate befell his follow-up series, "Lewis & Clark" (NBC, 1981-82), which mined comic material from Kaplan's interaction with Texas character actor Guich Kook as the Southern fried manager of a restaurant purchased by Kaplan's New Yorker. But if the failure of these projects bothered Kaplan, he certainly did not show it. In addition to his stand-up career, he kept himself busy by dabbling successfully in the financial markets, which earned him favorable press in investment magazines. He also began playing in professional poker tournaments in 1978 and proved himself to be a savvy player over the years. In fact, poker became his primary profession in the 1980s, long before the game surged in popularity in the early 2000s. Kaplan won several tournaments, including the Super Bowl of Poker, and was a regular on the World Poker Tour well into the next century. He even served as a joint television commentator during several championship events and made several appearances on the hour-long tournament series, "Poker After Dark" (NBC, 2007-2011). All throughout, Kaplan expressed little interest in resuming regular acting, preferring to perform only when the right part became available. Otherwise, he stated that he had no particular desire to perform on stage or on screen.
Despite being comfortable with life outside public view, Kaplan did perform on occasion throughout the decades. A longtime fan of Groucho Marx, Kaplan frequently imitated the iconic comedian on "Kotter" and unsuccessfully attempted to feature the comedy legend on the show. In the early 1980s, he turned his fascination for Groucho into a one-man stage show, "Groucho: A Life in Review," which was also filmed for HBO in 1982. Despite heavy conflict with Marx's son, Arthur, over the direction of the show, Kaplan frequently revived the production over the ensuing decades. Meanwhile, he made his last fictional appearance on television with a 1984 episode of "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996). Though numerous offers for new series and hosting duties on game shows came his way, he continued to resist, citing a disinterest in fame, and a full schedule of financial investing, professional poker, and stand-up work. Kaplan eventually added radio host to his busy roster in the early 1990s, when he fronted a sports talk show for a Los Angeles AM radio station, while also finding himself at the center of renewed interest when "Kotter" was added to the primetime lineup of "Nick at Nite." The newfound audience resulted in several reunions of the original cast for a 2000 episode of "The E! True Hollywood Story" (E!, 1996- ) and later as part of "ABC's 50th Anniversary Celebration" (2003).
In a rare feature appearance, Kaplan co-starred in the improvisational comedy "The Grand" (2007), which was set in the world of high-stakes poker competitions. Well cast for his comic skills and poker credentials, he also gave a surprisingly dramatic performance as the wayward father to two reigning poker champs (Cheryl Hines and David Cross), whose own desire to win was motivated by his competitive nature. Kaplan also impressed with his first book, Kotter's Back - E-mails from a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World (2007), which eschewed the usual biographical coverage in favor of chronicling several elaborate but benign pranks he carried out on unsuspecting victims via e-mail, who went along with the schemes due to his Hollywood pedigree. Among the more outlandish stunts covered in the books were Kaplan's attempt to convince the powers that be in Sioux City, IA to hold a parade for him in honor of his 60th birthday, and a proposal to an adult film producer that included a photo of Kaplan dressed only in his underwear. Meanwhile, Kaplan maintained his high-level of interest in all things poker, serving as the host of "High Stakes Poker" (GSN, 2006-2011) for the show's first six seasons.
By Shawn Dwyer
Cast (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Returned to acting after 10 years to tour in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"