From Mr. Peepers to Mr. Cooper, classrooms and comedy comprise a favorite TV pairing, but no show combined the two with its era better than Welcome Back, Kotter. From floppy hats and bell-bottoms to the slightly stoned-out look on the students' faces, Kotter became the 1970s for most kids. Products such as lunch boxes, board games and dolls (including a perfectly coifed John Travolta) solidified the iconic stature of the series and its cast. Ron Palillo, who played lovable schnook Horshack, took some time to raise his hand (with a quick, "Ooh-ooh-ooh!") and answer a few questions about Kotter's new Season 1 DVD (available now; buy it here), his first meeting with Travolta, and why Horshack and Screech went mano a mano.
TV Guide: Here we are over 30 years later welcoming back Kotter on DVD. When did you know the series was a monster hit?
Ron Palillo: My mom came to L.A. and I thought it would be a great idea to take her to Disneyland, and everywhere we walked there were people behind us. I didn't think anything about it, because the show had only been on about three weeks, but a security guard said, "Are you on that TV show?" I said, "Yes," and he said, "You really should go now. We don't have any VIP tours today." Kicked out of Disneyland with my mom. She, of course, loved it.
TV Guide: Why did the show end?
Palillo: We were all getting a little long in the tooth. You can only play 16 for so long; I was pushing 30 the last year of the show. That last season the show just didn't know what it was anymore. We got a whole new set of writers and they wanted to make the show relevant, when the one thing Kotter prided itself on was that we didn't fly any banners that said, "This is our cause."
TV Guide: Did they ever want to do a Horshack spin-off?
Palillo: Yeah, we filmed one and the pilot tested very well, but because of politics, they went with [the Barney Miller spin-off] Fish. After Kotter, Garry Marshall asked me to come in as a regular on Happy Days to play the first hippie to hit Milwaukee, kind of a Bob Dylan thing. That would have been like getting into the middle of a family, though, and I knew I'd never really feel part of the group.
TV Guide: What did you think of John Travolta the first time you met him?
Palillo: A good-looking, funny... uh, dope. [Laughs] He was an incredible actor and a lovable guy, but a big old dummy. When he was getting ready to do Saturday Night Fever, he was on the set doing his dance routines and we all watched and thought, "This could really be something" — and it was.
TV Guide: Do you speak to him anymore?
Palillo: Very rarely. I think the last time I saw him was two years ago when the Museum of American Film had a tribute to him and I was asked to speak about his Kotter years. No, we don't stay in contact, but when we do see each other, all the guys, it's genuine glee. When we did the ABC 50th-anniversary [special] and all the cast was together, it was like it was the first year of the show. Our ages had changed, but not our attitudes.
TV Guide: You're all now official '70s icons.
Palillo: That's sweet. You have to remember that was a time when there were only three channels to watch, so it was us or finding out what was happening on Walton's Mountain. [Laughs] But really, there was something about that period of time that was very merry; it seems to me it was the last time the country was happy.
TV Guide: What are you doing these days?
Palillo: Well, I did a movie called The Guardians, where I play a Scottish professor, and that's out now or should be soon. I'm also an artist, and I have a company that wants to put my art on T-shirts. I wrote a play called The Lost Boy that got amazing reviews, and I may be taking that to Los Angeles soon. Oh, and I just finished an indie film called The Curse of Micah Rood, where I play a 70-year-old hermit who owns an apple orchard. It's the best work I've done.
TV Guide: Better than fighting Screech on Celebrity Boxing? I find that hard to believe, sir.
Palillo: I was sold a bill of goods on that! I was told I'd be boxing Davy Jones from the Monkees, who is about my size, and when I got out there to learn how to box, because I'd never done it before, they told me, "It's not going to be Davy Jones, it's going to be Dustin Diamond." I said "Who?"
TV Guide: What did you do when you got in the ring?
Palillo: Little did I know, Dustin had the wingspan of a pterodactyl. He asked me not to hit him in the face, and I couldn't even reach his face! I got in a few good punches, but he hit me in the face and knocked my contact lens out; that's when they called the fight. I always wanted to do a real guy thing, you know? I think I was pretty heroic just by getting into the ring. I didn't think anybody would be watching that show. What was I thinking!
Let our Online Video Guide school you on Kotter with some classic clips.
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