The most 1970s moment in TV history: Gabe Kaplan vs. Robert Conrad in the Battle of the Network Stars

Please allow me the honor of presenting to you one of the great moments in the history of television in the 1970s. Up there with the Watergate Hearings, Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King, and Sammy Davis, Jr. kissing Archie Bunker.

I watched this as it was broadcast live, and I can't tell you how dramatic this sequence of events was, nor how incredulously and excitedly I viewed it.

In the annual Battle of the Network Stars TV show, actors from the various network television shows would compete on their network teams in various athletic events. These were popular shows, but especially for, let's say, a kid who watched a lot of television and may have been a little too interested in seeing certain actresses in skimpy athletic outfits.

The first Battle of the Network Stars was broadcast in 1976 on ABC, and controversy erupted when the NBC team was accused of a rule violation in the relay race that they won. NBC star Ben Murphy (Gemini Man) started his leg of the race considerably ahead of his mark, giving the NBC team an unfair advantage.

This led to all the actors/athletes standing around the track earnestly arguing about the race, and presenting their cases in interviews with ABC sports broadcaster Howard Cosell. There's no way this was staged or faked — these actors were genuinely passionate.

There's no cursing, but it's TV history 1970s, so there's plenty of smoking and plenty of ethnic accusations. At one point, NBC captain Robert Conrad (Baa Baa Black Sheep) says of CBS captain Telly Savalas (Kojak) and ABC captain Gabe Kaplan (from the high school sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter):

He [Savalas] is Greek, and Greeks are famous athletes; that's how this all started. He's [Kaplan] Jewish; he wants to arbitrate. I'm German; I want to kill both of 'em.

Out of nowhere, Pat Harrington (One Day at a Time) appears over Kaplan's shoulder: "I'm Irish; I'm looking for another Mick to hit."

When Howard Katz, the show's Director of Competition, penalizes NBC two seconds for the infraction and awards First Place to ABC, Robert Conrad is genuinely furious, exclaiming "Like Hell" four times. It's rare to see a celebrity lose his cool, but especially in the 1970s when there was no social media; you rarely saw actors out of character, and then only on carefully controlled publicity appearances.

Gabe Kaplan, a comedian, maintains a bemused demeanor, but Conrad can barely contain himself. Conrad mocks Kaplan: "'We're going for a little negotiation, technicality.' That's your captain. He lodged the protest."

Conrad then turns to Kaplan, and says, "You wanna run 100 to see who the fastest is?" Kaplan instantly replies, "Yes."

After some internal debate at ABC as to whether they should actually accept this challenge when they've already been awarded First Place, it's decided that they will have Kaplan run a sprint against Conrad for the First Place award.

Kaplan is a skinny comedian with a big fro and a mustache. Conrad is a handsome, fit, macho (as he'd be called in the 1970s) leading man.

As Kaplan later described the disparity:

Well, you see, Robert Conrad looks like a macho athlete. He was doing the knock-the-battery-off-my-shoulder deal at the time and people thought that he was a real athlete. And I look like a guy that should be hanging around a delicatessen, so it didn't seem fair that we were going to have a run-off on a disputed race.

You can guess who a comedy-nerd Welcome Back, Kotter fan would root for in this race against a blowhard from a war drama he'd never watch. But it seemed impossible that this awkward comic could win.

But incredibly, Kaplan does win, beating Conrad easily.

Turns out Kaplan ran track in high school and had aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player.

As Cosell interviewed the victorious Kaplan after the race, Conrad interrupts and spouts some nonsense meant to be defiant, but comes across as pathetic. He playfully/condescendingly/aggressively pats Kaplan on the face before stalking off.


There was no hyperbole when Howard Cosell ends the segment narrating the instant replay over "That the Way I Like It" by KC and the Sunshine Band:

And so Gabe Kaplan comes through in the clutch. He understands now why we call it the thrill of victory vis-a-vis the agony of defeat. Look at the smile etched in the visage as he pressed the tape.