Classic TV shows celebrate big birthdays in 2015

Classic shows like Welcome Back, Kotter! celebrate big birthdays this year.

Classic shows like Welcome Back, Kotter! celebrate big birthdays this year.

The fall television season will soon be upon us, with lots of new shows debuting. What does that have to do with this article? Not a damned thing, actually, as this piece is about three classic television shows celebrating significant birthdays this year.

Be kind, rewind to thirty years ago. The Golden Girls first aired on September 14, 1985. The show depicted four women in their golden years: sarcastic divorcee Dorothy (Bea Arthur), spacey but good hearted widow Rose (Betty White) and man hungry southern widow Blanche, all cohabitating together in Blanche’s Miami house.

In the pilot episode, Dorothy’s 80 year old mother Sophia joins the trio. Sophia (Estelle Getty) always spoke her mind and her comments were often blunt and sarcastic.

The Golden Girls was an instant success and ran on NBC on 1992. It was one of the few shows in television history where all four lead actresses won Emmys over the course of the series’ run.

Fun fact, originally Betty White was slated to play the role of Blanche, who was loosely based on White’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sue Ann Nivens. Rue McClanahan was asked to play Rose, who was based on her portrayal of the spacey Vivian on Maude. However, while filming the pilot episode, director Jay Sandrich suggested White and McClanahan switch roles, a move that proved to be splendid decision.

McClanahan had previously worked with both White and Arthur on different shows. In the 70s, she co-starred with Arthur on Maude, and in the 80s, she starred alongside White in the role of Ellen on Mama’s Family.

Flashback forty years ago to September 9, 1975 and the premiere of Welcome Back, Kotter! The premise? Wisecracking high school teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) returns to his alma mater, James Buchanan High School, to teach a classroom of unruly students nicknamed “The Sweathogs.” Kotter, now married and settled down with his wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), had been a Sweathog himself when he was a student at the school ten years earlier. His old nemesis, Vice Principal Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White) taught Kotter during that time, and isn’t happy to see him again.

Loosely based on the Kaplan’s standup comedy act, the four students currents were all based on his high school friends.

The four “Sweathog” characters included Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillio), an oddball with a hyena like laugh, Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Laurence Hilton Jacobs), a hip black high school basketball star, Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) a wise guy Puerto Rican Jew, and – last but not least – Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), the ultimate ladies’ man and the leader of the Sweathogs.

The show faced controversy during its first season when ABC’s Boston affiliate WCVB refused to air the show. Boston was in the midst of implementing a controversial bussing program and protests and riots had erupted in response.

WCVB was concerned the show promoted and glorified juvenile delinquency, hence their initial refusal to air the show. Boston’s UHF station, WSBK Channel 38, aired the first five episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter! and upon its success, WCVB finally agreed to air the show.

The show was a runaway hit for the first three seasons but lost steam in the fourth when the show lost two major cast members. Kaplan and producer James Komack locked horns, resulting in Kaplan appearing in only two episodes that season, and John Travolta’s movie had skyrocketed with the success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, leaving him free only to appear in a handful of episode.

The show’s ratings dropped and ABC cancelled it in 1979.

Hop into your time machine and travel to September 10, 1955, when one of television’s most beloved westerns of all time, Gunsmoke, first aired. The premise? United States Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness), along with his deputies Chester (Dennis Weaver) and later Festus (Ken Curtis), keeps the peace in Dodge City. Also in the cast were saloon keeper Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and the town’s doctor, Doc Adams (Milburn Stone).

The show expanded from a half hour to an hour in 1961 and, in 1966, began airing in color.

Gunsmoke held the number one slot in the ratings from 1957-61 but was cancelled in 1967 by CBS executives due to declining ratings. However, CBS President William Paley and his wife, Barbra, loved Gunsmoke so much he insisted his executives find a way to put the show back on prime time.

In order to make room, executives cancelled the then very popular Gilligan’s Island, which had already been picked up for a fourth season. The result? We never learned if and how our Gilligan’s Island castaways were rescued from the island until a television movie aired in 1978 and finally solved that mystery.

Gunsmoke would endure for another eight years, ending in 1975 and having aired 635 episodes in a 20 year run.

Another fun fact: Actor James Arness is one of only two actors to play the same character for over 20 years. Kelsey Grammar, who played Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers and then on Frasier, is the only other actor to share that distinction.
Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges

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