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Up Your Nose With a Rubber Hose: Jewcy Talks to Alan Sacks, Co-Creator of “Welcome Back Kotter”

Alan Sacks is the original Sweathog. A buttoned-down N.Y. producer who relocated to Los Angeles to be closer to the happenings of the late ‘60s, Sacks helped create Welcome Back Kotter by drawing upon his tough childhood in Brooklyn. We … Read More

By / November 16, 2007

Alan Sacks is the original Sweathog. A buttoned-down N.Y. producer who relocated to Los Angeles to be closer to the happenings of the late ‘60s, Sacks helped create Welcome Back Kotter by drawing upon his tough childhood in Brooklyn. We talked to Sacks about the inspiration behind the Jewish Holy Trinity: Kotter, Epstein and Horshack.

How did you create the show, where did it come from?

I was inspired by a couple of things, both of which happened around 1956. That was a pivotal year for me. That was the year "rock n roll" was invented by Alan Freed …

Another fine Jew.

Yeah, exactly, too bad he's not around to be interviewed. But yeah, Alan Freed came up with that phrase "rock n roll," and all summer long I was listening to him over the airwaves, his top forty countdown on Saturday morning. I'd be in the schoolyard with a lot of my Italian friends, Vinnie Barbarino and Joey Caluchi …

Wait, did you just say Vinnie Barbarino?

Right.

So the John Travolta character was based on a real person with the same name?

Right … No wait, his real name was Joey Barbarino.

Oh.

I mean Joey Caluchi. Yeah, Travolta's character was really based more on the other friend I mentioned, Joey Caluchi. You know, Joey Caluchi's other claim to fame is he was the first person ever whacked by Sammy the Bull.

That's great. I mean, that's horrible, but that's great.

(Laughing). And Sammy the Bull went to my elementary school.

So you were saying?

So we would listen to Alan Freed's top forty countdown show, and it would come over these little Motorola portable radios that we had. Well, during that same year, three movies came out in very close proximity to one another: The Wild One with Marlon Brando; Rebel without a Cause with James Dean, and The Blackboard Jungle. These were movies about juvenile delinquents. When we went to see The Blackboard Jungle, it began by showing what today they would call an inner city high school, though it was just a Lower East Side or Brooklyn type of high school; and they had guys dancing over the main titles with each other and suddenly Bill Haley's music came on – "Rock Around the Clock" – and it was the first time we ever heard music beyond those small little radios, we heard this huge music coming over the speakers, this rock n roll, and it became like tribal, we started banging our chairs, you know, throwing things, destroying the theater and they had to shut down the movie. That stayed with me my whole life. So I always thought when I came out here to California, I was going to write and create a television show about that moment, the tough things that I grew up with in Brooklyn.

The other thing that inspired me was a series of films called the Bowery Boys about these east side kids, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, these tough kids from New York.

These were mostly Irish kids, right?

Yeah, mostly Irish kids, but I think Huntz Hall, he might have been Hebrew, I think so, he might have been.

You kind of identified with him when watching it?

No, I didn't, I identified with Leo Gorcey, who was the tough, short leader of the pack, even though he was Irish. Huntz Hall was Jewish, and was played with a big nose, and he was, you know, the goof.

Ok, so you had this idea, and you pitched it to the networks?

It wasn't just my idea. It was also Gabe Kaplan's, who played Mr. Kotter on the show. He had an act all about kids he knew in high school, and I had my experiences with my friends and we combined the two. Like "Epstein the Animal." He was a character in Gabe's stand-up routine. He was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. We liked the idea of having a tough Jew, cause there are some, you know. Gabe's joke was, "This kid was so tough that all the other parents would take their kids off the street one hour a day so Epstein could run out and walk through the streets." So that was kind of what Epstein was based on. But [Michael] Eisner, who was then head of programming at ABC, said I think we should make Epstein half Puerto Rican and half Jewish. My personal feeling about that was I didn't know any half Puerto Ricans and half Jews, I didn't quite buy that idea, but I also knew that he wanted to contribute creatively, so I said, ok, let's go with this. As it turned out it was a great idea, it gave us a wealth of material, a wealth of jokes. And the irony of it is I have a cousin who moved down to Florida and she came to visit about seven or eight years ago, and I hadn't seen her in years, and she'd married a Puerto Rican guy and her last name is Gonzales now, and her children are half Jewish, half Puerto Rican, so in fact I have cousins who are in reality like the fiction that I created.

Kotter lives!

More than even that. I had no idea I was going to become a college professor. I'm teaching now seven or eight years, I forget, and that's accidental, I didn't plan it, I didn't start out to be a teacher, I'm not in retirement, I didn't say ok I'm a teacher now, it just happened, you know. So the irony is I became a teacher and my students love the idea that I created Welcome Back.

So do you divide them into different characters from the show – and do they act like those guys?

No, but they like to think they do, they have a big joke like that. (laughs) But you know, it's funny when you say that because when I went to my high school reunion in Brooklyn, I'd lived in Hollywood so long that when I got there I half-expected it to be this huge event with klieg lights and like a red carpet, that was my frame of reference. As it turned out, there was just the old gym, and the whole school packed in there and I felt out of place. But then, everybody started coming up to me and asking me who they were. "Was I Barbarino?" "Was I Horshack?" They all wanted to know which one was based on them.

Were any of them?

No, because it was mostly from my junior high school. I turned it into a high school for the show.

Did any people actually want to be Horshack?

Errr, I think some people did (laughs). Yeah, I think so.

Who picks Horshack as the person to be?

I think people who are happy being the nerd, you know, the person satisfied about being a goofball. I wouldn't want to be Horshack.

You wouldn't?

No, no, (laughs), he was a goof.

It's funny, because in terms of Jewish identity, he's probably the most interesting character. He seems very Jewish.

But I never wanted him to be Jewish, I didn't want the nerd, the complete nerd to be Jewish, the stereotype, you know. That's the one thing about being Jewish that you get typecast as, and that's not necessarily, you know, who Jews who are. Jews are cool!

But in some ways it seems unavoidable, like maybe you were making fun of that idea. I mean, he's got the name, which sounds kind of Polish-Jewish…

"Arnold, hi, I'm Arnold Horshack."

And the accent, and the nose…

He's Italian, and the accent was Robert Hegyes trying to do Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. But, I understand what you're saying and people interpreting that. Still, I always found that a little offensive that people felt that.

I don't mean to be offensive.

No, you're not being offensive at all…

But I got to ask you a couple of things about that, because, one, in Dustin Hoffman you've got …

Yeah, yeah, right.

…a Jew playing an Italian, I always think Jews and Italians are so alike anyway, it's like…

Right!

…it's like Jews are decaf Italians.

Exactly, that's funny.

So I wonder if on some level Horshack was an unconscious projection of negative feelings of how Jews are seen.

My own negative feelings?

Maybe, or Gabe's. Was he your character more, or Gabe's character?

Gabe's. Though I always thought Gabe himself was a nerd. So maybe it is Gabe. We're analyzing Gabe now! (laughs)

Well, it's easy, you know, what's he gonna say? He's not here. We should call him up and get him on a three-way conversation.

I spoke to Gabe this morning.

Maybe we should check in with him and give him like a little P.S. at the bottom. You know, like "I'm anyone but Horshack." We'll talk about that later. But one other thing about Horshack – I was remembering what I think is one of the final episodes where he gets married…

Yeah.

Isn't there a moment where they need something for him to step on at the wedding, a glass…

Did he step on a glass … oh, yeah yeah yeah, I remember that now, right.

I think it's something other than a glass because they can't find one. I can't remember now.

I can't remember.

So he must be Jewish.

(Sounding defeated) Right.

Like he came out of the closet at the end of the show…

Well, he wasn't Jewish for the first two years. (Sighs then laughs). You know, Gabe and I have been talking about developing a movie and in the movie we've talked about Horshack coming out.

Of the closet? Not as a Jew, but as gay?

Yeah.

I like it. Because that was the other thing about him you always wondered. He seemed a little too attracted to Mr. Kotter all the time. You know, "Ewww ewwww ewwww, Mr. Kotter!"

(Laughs) Yeah, right.

Interesting. So what about the rest of the Sweathogs? What are they doing?

In my mind? Creatively?

Yeah.

Oh. Well, like I said, Horshack is coming out. He's a beautician. A hairdresser. This past week he was getting married in San Francisco. Not that that matters to me at all. I think that's great. And let's see … Barbarino … he's just gotten out of jail. He's written a memoir about the Sweathogs and he's sold the movie rights and he's a millionaire in L.A. And Freddy "Boom Boom" Washington is like, you know, still like one of the cool, ultimate brothers. He's still going to basketball games, still shooting hoops, he's very stylin'. He's a music producer, he's into music, and he's playing keyboards.

And Epstein?

Oh, Epstein, he's like on his fourth wife. And he's a butcher.

Is he still in the neighborhood?

Yeah, he's still in the neighborhood, he's a butcher in Brooklyn.

And the ladies like to drop in?

Oh yeah!

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