By Marshall Jay Kaplan
“Up your nose with a rubber hose!” Almost 40 years ago, Gabe Kaplan was known as Mr. Kotter, a sitcom teacher who was quick with a joke and bantered with his “Sweathog” students. These days, he is simply known as the guy who knows how to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Gabe Kaplan was born in Brooklyn, NY, on March 31, 1945. His original aspiration in life was to become a major league baseball player … but ended up as a stand-up comedian. Go figure! Kaplan made name for himself in the late 1960s, and by the early 70s enjoyed success with his stand-up routines about growing up in Brooklyn. He landed some big-time television gigs—including five appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was this stand-up “schitck” that led him to his iconic TV role. Welcome Back, Kotter debuted in 1975 and became an overnight hit. Kaplan played teacher, Gabe Kotter who returned to teach at his old high school. His class ended up being a bunch of dysfunctional students, called “The Sweathogs,” which consisted of Juan Epstein, Freddie Boom-Boom Washington, Arnold Horseshack and Vinnie Barbarino (played by break-out star John Travolta). The series lasted until 1979 and spawned many catchphrases, such as “Did I ever tell you about my Uncle…?”; “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”; “Ooooooh! Oooooh! Ooooooh! Mr Kotter!”; “What? Where? Why?”; “I gotta letter from my mother,” and, “Hey, Mr. Koh-taire!” After Kotter ended, Kaplan recalls, “I would have loved to have kept on being a TV star, but I was going through the normal transition of a celebrity who’s in decline goes through—third or fourth billing on sitcom, game show panel, etc. You try to do your best to get back on top, taking whatever is offered to you. I didn’t want that.” Instead, Gabe starred in the 1979 film Fast Break, and portrayed Groucho Marx in a successful one-man stage show. Kaplan became involved in the world of poker during his last few years on Kotter. By 1980, he was considered one of poker’s elite, winning the Amarillo Slims Super Bowl of Poker. More than thirty years later, Kaplan is one of the world’s greatest poker players. His total tournament winnings in 2009 alone were just under $2 million. Kaplan can often be seen as a TV commentator or host of live poker tournaments. In 2010, Kaplan published a book about his comedic e-mail pranks, “Kotter’s Back–Emails from a Faded TV Celebrity,” where he shares fake and funny email replies to various people who tried to contact him and offer him celebrity roles. Today, Kaplan lives in the Los Angeles area and looks back fondly at his Kotter days. “Whenever I hear the famous theme song, it brings back memories. You think about the show or a particular night when we were filming. It’s definitely a part of my life,” he said.