Someone asked to hear about my days as a Story Editor on the TV show, Welcome Back, Kotter. Those days (there were only
about six months' worth of them) are something of a blur.
I remember getting up in the morning, driving to the ABC Studios and spending all day there, either watching rehearsals, sitting in
meetings or writing and rewriting scripts. I remember evenings that consisted of either working there on the lot, writing and rewriting 'til
all hours...or driving up to the home of our star, Gabe Kaplan, and writing and rewriting there 'til all hours.
I remember staggering home to bed somewhere between 2 AM and 6 AM most mornings, then getting up a few hours later to begin the process
anew. At times, this is all I remember.
At other times, I recall the people — most of whom were nice and creative — and the tapings, which were always
exhilarating, one way or the other. I recall arguments, folks being fired and others quitting just before they could be fired.
Can't say I remember much about the actual episodes we wrote and put on the air but, hey, that's why Nick-at-Nite was invented.
(They're not airing the series at the moment but, every so often, they do, refreshing my recollections and earning me more of those mammoth 8-cent
I recall three experiences from that job relating to casting, at least one of which demonstrates my utter naïveté about
show business. That story occurred one day when we — the show's producers and writers — were sitting around, trying to think of
someone who could play Gabe's father. It was a very large role in an episode that was about to go into rehearsal but, somehow, no one had yet
gotten around to filling that not-insignificant void.
The actor had to be the proper age and able to play an overbearing, hypercritical parent. He also had to look at least something
like our star. One of the producers said, "It has to either be someone who's Jewish or can play Jewish" and the director suggested Sammy Davis,
More serious suggestions were tossed about and I lobbed in the name of a fine character actor named Harold J. Stone, who had appeared
on a wonderful, short-lived series called My World and Welcome To It, and had logged guest spots on pert near every other TV show. I was
apparently the only person in the room who knew of Mr. Stone, so my nomination faltered for lack of a second.
Less than an hour later, I was walking through the reception area which we shared with several other companies, and I wound up doing a
double-take that would have been considered overacting on The Benny Hill Show. There, contentedly and seriously reading a magazine, was
Harold J. Stone! "What an incredible coincidence," thought I, the TV newbie.
I rushed up to the producer's office, poked my head in and said, "You'll never believe this! Remember, I suggested an actor named
Harold J. Stone to play Gabe's father? Well, he just happens to be sitting in the reception area downstairs, right this very minute."
The producer looked at me like I had just wet myself. Very quietly, he explained, "Yes, we called him in on your suggestion."
Harold J. Stone wound up playing Gabe's father and doing a pretty good job of it. But from then on, every time I made a casting
suggestion, the producer glared at me and said, "Well, we could call that actor in or wait and see if he just happens to turn up in the waiting
Okay, so much for Casting Story #1. Here's Casting Story #2...
We were looking for an actress to play an art teacher who develops a crush on Mr. Kotter. Our casting director rounded up about a
dozen prospects and, one by one, they came in to read a scene for the director, the producers and story editors. All of those people were
The auditioners were all fine and I suppose any of them would have been adequate in the role. They were all young, attractive and
able to flirt, but one seemed especially accomplished in the Flirtation Department. I think she was the last applicant and she was
gorgeous. A year or two later, she turned up naked in Playboy.
That should give you an idea how gorgeous. Let us call her, for the
sake of me not getting sued, Bubbles.
She came in, read the part and then, just before she left, she made it very clear that she would do whatever it took, with whomever it
took, to land the job. I cannot quote the precise language here without making my computer screen blush. Just take it from me: Hitler
exhibited greater subtlety when he invaded Poland.
The minute she was out the door, we all looked at one another in shock. I was new to the biz but even a producer with twenty
years on me muttered that he'd never heard anything like that before. Finally, he said, "Okay, let's put that young lady's generous offer
completely out of our minds. Let's just vote on which of them will do a better job in front of the camera."
We voted — and the unanimous winner was Bubbles.
That is not a joke, nor was it because of her suggestive suggestions. She really and truly was the best one.
"Then it's settled," the producer said. "We hire Bubbles, and none of us lays a hand on her." We all agreed and took the
About three minutes later — after we'd gone on to other topics — one of the other producers suddenly reopened the topic of
"You know," he said. "If she acted like that with us, you can bet she's made that kind of come-on to other producers in this
town. And if we hire her, they're all going to assume we hired her because she was sleeping with one or more of us...
"Now, I don't know about the rest of you but I don't want that kind of a reputation."
Everyone nodded...and the role went to someone else. I never heard Bubbles mentioned again in the office...or much of anywhere
else in television. Which may explain how come she wound up naked in Playboy.
Casting Story #3 guest-stars the great comic book artist (and one of my mentors) Jack Kirby.
It began one morn when Gabe came in and announced that, the previous evening, he'd been at some Hollywood function and met the
Oscar-winning actor, George Kennedy. He was, Gabe reported, a huge fan of the show as were his kids. "He'd
love to be a guest star some day." We all decided that we would love to have the Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy on an episode...and the
sooner, the better.
There was a script that had been written about a gym teacher who lost his temper and slapped Travolta's character, Vinnie
Barbarino. It was an interesting premise but the story had problems and had been put on hold.
One of our producers suggested that, if we could lick the plot
dilemmas, that might be an ideal role for the Oscar-winning actor
George Kennedy. We all went to work on it, got the thing into shape, and scheduled it for production. A copy was shipped over to our
presumed guest star.
About the same time, I received a call from Roz Kirby, spouse of Jack, asking if it would be possible for them to attend a
taping. Their daughter Lisa and several of her friends were big fans of the show and its young stars — not just Travolta but also Ron
Palillo (who played Horshack), Larry Hilton-Jacobs (who played Washington) and Bobby Hegyes (who played Epstein.) Collectively, for reasons
even the guy who created the show couldn't quite explain, they were known as The Sweathogs.
One of Lisa's pals had written away for tickets and learned that there was a six-month wait and even then, admission was not
assured. I, on the other hand, could arrange for V.I.P. seats — front row, no waiting in line, that kind of thing.
I suggested they come the following week for the taping with the Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy. "You'll get to see a big
star and I'll see that Lisa and her friends meet all the Sweathogs." Roz wrote it in on her calendar and I gave her directions to the ABC
Everything was fine until the day before rehearsals were to start. That was when we learned that the Oscar-winning actor George
Kennedy was not, after all, playing the part.
One producer told us that the Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy had read the script and didn't want to play someone who slapped John
Travolta. "My kids would never forgive me," one of our producers quoted him as saying. Another producer said that wasn't the reason. The
Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy merely had a schedule conflict and was unavailable. Either way, we would have to proceed without him.
The casting folks scrambled into Code-Red Alert. They called all the major agencies and asked for submissions of actors who might
fit the breakdown. For some reason, though I had no power to cast, a few calls came to me. One was from an agent whose firm represented
Frank Sutton, who'd played Sgt. Carter on the TV series, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. "He'd be fine," I told the agent, "except for one
"What's that?" he asked.
"He's dead," I said.
The agent screamed, "What!?"
And I told him: "Your client died about two years ago."
The man on the other end of the line got furious: "My client isn't dead. How can you say that about a man? You don't know
what you're talking about!"
We argued for around three minutes until I interrupted his ranting and said, "Look, I'll make this simple. If you can get him
here, he's got the part." I hung up on the agent.
Five minutes later, he called back and asked, "Have you seen Simon Oakland lately?"
As soon as was humanly possible, several actors — all of them, ostensibly alive — were called in to audition. The one
selected for the job was the non-Oscar-winning actor, Scott Brady, who had several decades of appearing in crime movies and westerns, mainly of the
"B" variety. His filmography includes In This Corner, The Gal Who Took the West, Undercover Girl, Kansas Raiders, Yankee Buccaneer, Untamed
Frontier, Bronco Buster, The Law Vs. Billy the Kid, The Restless Breed and Ambush at Cimarron Pass. For a time, he played Shotgun
Slade on the TV show of the same name.
As our gym teacher, he proved to be a very good choice. The finished episode was one of my favorites of all those in which I had
The night of the taping, things were so hectic that I almost forgot that Jack and Roz were coming, along with Lisa and her
friends. Fortunately, an ABC page noticed on the V.I.P. list that they were my guests. He made certain they got good seats, then reported
to me where he'd put them. I asked him to make sure that, when the audience was dismissed, my guests would be permitted to stick around.
Things went smoothly on stage that evening — not always the case with our show. After the episode was "in the can" —
or, more correctly, "on the tape reels" — Gabe Kaplan brought the cast out for bows, thanked the audience and sent them home. I scurried
up to the bleachers and said hello to Jack, Roz, Lisa and two of Lisa's friends.
On stage, there was a quick break and then taping resumed, sans audience, of a few leftover shots and promos. During a
lull, I ran down and brought John Travolta and Larry Hilton-Jacobs up to meet my guests and sign autographs. Gabe wandered up and said hello,
as did John Sylvester-White — a wonderful, eternally-befuddled little man who played the principal, Mr. Woodman.
When he was released, Scott Brady came up to where I was sitting with the Kirbys and said good-bye to me. Since he was standing
right there, I introduced him to the Kirby contingent, as well.
The next day, we went into rehearsal for the following episode. Just before the first table reading, Larry Hilton-Jacobs came up
to me and said, "Mark, someone told me you were into comic books." I said that was true; that I had a huge collection of them and had written
(at the time) a few hundred.
He said, "Wow, I was really into comics when I was younger. Marvels, especially. I thought for a while I wanted to draw
them. Like I was really in to the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four..."
I said, "Well, last night, you shook hands with one of the creators of the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four."
He said, "What?"
I said, "Remember that friend of mine I introduced you to in the audience? His name was Jack Kirby. He was the artist who
designed the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer."
Larry gasped. "That was the Jack Kirby? I heard the name and I thought, well, this can't be the same Jack Kirby who
drew all those comic books."
I said, "Same one."
"That little, runty guy drew all those big muscle guys?"
I said, "If you two got in a boxing ring, I'd bet my house on Jack."
That's actually the end of the story but I wanted to close with one of those "Kirby moments" I will never forget,
It occurred the night before, after the taping and the post-taping autographing, as I was walking my guests to their car. Lisa
and Lisa's friends were still squealing with delight, giggling over how they'd tell their friends at school about hanging out with the
Sweathogs. Roz turned to me and said, "This has been quite an evening. It's really a thrill to meet someone you've always admired from
And Jack grinned and said, "Yeah! I can't believe I got to meet Scott Brady!"