Marcia Strassman made her mark as the 1970s version of Alice Kramden, playing the (mostly) understanding wife of Gabe Kaplan on ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
But Strassman, who died Friday at 66, was in showbiz for more than 10 years before she wound up on the sitcom that became a pop culture touchstone, in part because it made a star of John Travolta.
Lithe and raspy-voiced, Strassman began her showbiz career on stage and also tried to become a pop star in the mid-1960s before her thesping work took off. After she got her break on “Kotter,” she became active in the Screen Actors Guild.
Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Strassman’s early career:
- She got off to a good start in the pages of Variety. Her first reference came in the Sept. 11, 1963 edition, in an item noting that she would replace Liza Minnelli in Off Broadway’s “Best Foot Forward,” which was a comeback vehicle for 1940s star Veronica Lake. Variety described Strassman as “a winning comedienne.”
- The following summer she worked with Shelley Winters and Robert Walker in a Westport, Conn. summer-stock production of “Days of the Dancing,” described by Variety as a story of “beatniks wasting their lives in at a beach bar in Venice, Cal.”
- By 1967, Strassman had signed an acting contract with Universal Pictures but she was also angling for the pop charts. In July 1967 she released the rock ballad “The Groovy World of Jack and Jill” on MCA’s Uni label.
- The following year she was tapped to co-star in “Changes,” a pic aimed at the “youth market” that was notable for featuring seven original tunes written by Tim Buckley.
- In 1970, she co-starred in “Salvation,” a tuner at the Las Palmas Theater that was tagged as a “Hair” knockoff in which “kids enact mod statements of current life.” Among the songs: “There Ain’t No Flies on Jesus.” “Salvation,” it turned out, was short-lived.
- Strassman endured a string of busted pilots in the early 1970s (back in the days when those pilots would air during the off season, giving Variety a chance to review them). 1972’s “Wednesday Night Out” was written by Garry Marshall and revolved around three couples and a divorcee who meet every Wednesday for a party. Pat Harrington, Gloria DeHaven and Cicely Tyson also starred.
- She co-starred with Martin Sheen in a 1973 episode of the NBC anthology series “Love Story,” which attempted to capitalize on the hit 1970 movie and Erich Segal novel by presenting stories of star-crossed lovers.
- 1974’s “Nobody’s Perfetc” — complete with misspelling — was a “Love, American Style” anthology effort for CBS that featured an over-the-top intro by Telly Savalas.
- Even with “Kotter” under way, Strassman was tapped as a supporting player in a 1976 pilot from “Kotter” producer David L. Wolper for ABC, “Brenda Starr,” toplined by Jill St. John.
- In 1977 Strassman, Kaplan and other “Kotter” castmates were among the 1,000 guests who danced until 3 a.m. at the “disco party” thrown on Paramount’s stages 14-15 following the Chinese Theater premiere of “Saturday Night Fever.” That was the smash hit that put “Kotter’s” Vinnie Barbarino in the rear-view mirror for Travolta.
- During the 1980 Screen Actors Guild strike, Strassman helped organize a benefit for the guild’s emergency fund at the Hollywood Bowl that included perfs by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Waylon Jennings. A month later, many of the same folks gathered at the Westwood Playhouse for a fundraiser for the Committee to Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. John Ritter and Cindy Williams emceed.
- In 1982 Strassman was part of the ensemble of the independent made-for-cable production “Likely Stories,” a series of hourlong comedies that also featured future “This Is Spinal Tap” bandmates Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. The episodes aired on what Variety called “subscription over-the-air TV” (aka OnTV and SelecTV for those old enough to remember) and were picked up by Cinemax a few years later.