Back when I was writing TV comedy I was hired to write a situation comedy series called “Mr. T & Tina”. It starred Pat Morita, who played Arnold, the owner of the Drive-in on “Happy Days”. The series was produced by Jimmy Komack, who also produced an extremely popular TV series called “Welcome Back Kotter”. The Kotter series show and the Mr. T. and Tina show shared production facilities, as well as the same rehearsal hall.
Welcome Back Kotter featured a group of misfit students (the Sweathogs) who continually tormented and bemused their wise-cracking teacher who was named Kotter, played by comedian Gabriel Kaplan. The unofficial leader of the Sweathogs was a character Vincent “Vinnie” Barbarino. Vincent was played by an up and coming actor named John Travolta. In those days John Travolta was a hunk of a gorgeous guy and he had tons of adoring female fans. It was clearly Travolta’s presence that made Welcome Back Kotter the ratings sensation it was. From Kotter, Travolta was propelled into superstardom in “Grease” and later in “Pullp Fiction”. It was a far cry from my days with him on the rehearsal hall basketball court.
As I said, “Mr. T & Tina” shared the same production facilities as Kotter and I would hang around with the Sweathogs when they’d come in to do their rehearsals. Actually they weren’t total rehearsals, they were more like basketball games. They had a basketball court set up in the rehearsal hall and they would spend as much time throwing hoops as they spent rehearsing for the show. I wasn’t much of a basketball player but the guys liked my clownng around so I was an unofficial “Sweathog” at least on the rehearsal hall basketball court. Travolta and I were quite a duo in those days. He would play basketball seriously, while I would goof around and did my best impression of the Harlem Globetrotters. He was always laughing at my antics. He called me Roboman and I called him “Bobo” for some reason.
Over the years I have lost contact with John but remember him as a truly nice and decent guy. While I am a bit baffled with his involvement with Scientology, I figure that’s his choice and if it works for him, that is fine with me. I never met John’s son, and the news of Jett’s death today came as a shocker. Jett was barely 16 years old. Was Jett’s death caused by complications from Kawasaki disease, or was Jett autistic, as some have claimed? Whether the cause was autism or Kawaski only the autopsy will reveal.
As people debate the medical/Scientology controversy casting a shadow over Jett’s death, I can’t help but think back of John’s relatively carefree days, playing basketball in the rehearsal hall, contrasted with the thought of him having to deal with his son’s death in the glare and spotlight of international media is part of the tragedy that too often accompanies stardom.
I offer John and Kelly my heartfelt condolences and hope the media somehow finds the heart to give you a period of privacy that you, Bobo, deserve.