Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet one of their heroes? Over the course of a career careening towards its fourth decade, I’ve had quite a few chances although experience has taught me to be wary. Singers, musicians, writers, actors, you may love their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean meeting them will be enjoyable or that they’ll enjoy meeting you. The celebrity ego, deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, the after-effects of substance abuse, age, world-weariness, there are so many factors working against the average Joe being in the company of greatness, self-perceived or otherwise.
While I love their work, for example, I know enough about Jerry Lee Lewis and Hunter S. Thompson to acknowledge I’d never want to spend any time with them (not that I’ll have much of a chance with Hunter this side of the vale of tears).
There’s also the matter of timing. Your heroes are only human after all. Everybody has good and bad days. You just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, and I’m inclined to bold, underline and italicize however, there are those glorious moments when celestial bodies align and the people you’re most looking forward to meeting are everything you’re hoping for. And more.
As it was recently, aboard the cruise ship Sun Princess, on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland. I’d been commissioned to interview actor Gavin MacLeod, better known as Captain Merrill Stubing of The Love Boat; the editor knew I’d get a kick out of it and she was right. I’m a huge fan of 1970s television shows and The Love Boat is at the very top of the list.
It just so happened I had a copy of Gavin’s recently-released memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking, and one of the local Sydney television channels had run the complete series of Love Boat episodes in chronological order, most of which I’d watched.
For those too young to remember or not of this galaxy, it’s difficult to describe just how popular a show it was. It ran from 1977 to 1987, ten seasons in all. At its peak, it screened in more than 90 countries. It probably still is.
The Love Boat revolved around the adventures of a cruise ship crew – the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr Adam Bricker, generally known as Doc, purser “Gopher” Smith, bartender Isaac Washington, and cruise director Julie McCoy, overseen by a kind yet firm father-figure, Captain Merrill Stubing. A year into the run, producer Aaron Spelling decided it needed younger blood and introduced Stubing’s teenage daughter, Vicki, to the group.
For a one-hour show, it had something of a radical narrative in that each episode consisted of three stories. One emphasised the crew, another the passengers, and the third veered between the two. The guest stars provided a large measure of interest, anybody and virtually everybody who was reasonably ambulatory and within travelling distance of Los Angeles in those days appeared on the Love Boat; casting favoured well-known, if slightly overlooked, movie stars, some going as far back as the silent movie days.
So, you are asking, how did Captain Stubing come to be on this cruise ship more than a quarter of a century later? Soon after production wrapped in 1987, Gavin MacLeod was signed as an ambassador by Princess Cruises, which had provided the ships used in The Love Boat. The Love Boat itself was, as you’ll find in the opening credits, the Pacific Princess, although others in the Princess fleet stood in from time to time although only for exteriors or location shoots. The cast spent most of their time (at least for the first five seasons) on sets at 20th Century Fox in Century City, Los Angeles.
That Gavin has been an ambassador for Princess Cruises for far longer than he was captain of the Love Boat is remarkable. Founded in 1965, the company was acquired in 1974 by P&O, then taken over by Carnival in 2002. In the meantime, it’s gone from strength to strength; the 18th ship in the Princess fleet, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess debuted early in 2014. Despite the vagaries of the tourism industry, Gavin has been retained as ambassador and today continues a busy schedule of promotions and appearances. In 2011, he celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess.
Gavin was born Allan George See in 1931 and grew up in an upstate New York town with the unlikely name of Pleasantville. At the age of four, he appeared in a Mother’s Day play at his local school and there experienced an epiphany. His young heart responded to the siren call of applause. He loved it, craved it, wanted more of it. As small as he was, at an age when most of us are still giddy with the novelty of walking or stringing half-intelligent sentences together, he knew he wanted to do whatever it took to hear that applause over and over again.
He was determined to be an actor.
It came to be so. Once out of high school, he moved to New York City where he worked as an elevator operator at Radio City Music Hall while he studied acting. He was young and inexperienced, on the very bottom rung of a career ladder he was anxious to climb but he had one more drawback than most of his contemporaries. He lost his hair at an early age and, as agents and casting people were quick to point out, that didn’t exactly make him the next big thing.
His confidence improved remarkably upon obtaining a second-hand hairpiece. Gavin (by this time, he’d taken another step upwards by changing his name to a more marketable one) readily admits it turned his life around; he even started dating a Radio City Rockette.
In short order, his future looked rosier. His performance in his first Broadway play garnered interest although another cast member, who went by the name of Steve McQueen, ended up on a far faster track. He made friends, including an actor by the name of Marion Ross, of which more later, and director Blake Edwards, and followed the trail of many actors heading west to Hollywood.
If the 1950s was the East Coast, by the end of that decade he was well established on the West Coast. He took on some movie roles, playing opposite Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958), Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959), and through the 60s seemed to pop up on every television show of note. Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Dr Kildare, The Munsters, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Flying Nun, the list goes on. He spent two years on McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine but, as an ambitious actor, he felt under-utilised and under-appreciated.
Then, as the 1970s dawned, things got a whole lot better. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in a new sit-com called All In The Family. It was edgy and subversive, far ahead of its time, and now regarded as ground-breaking for shattering the staid orthodoxy of American television. Bunker was a blue-collar American, rigidly conservative, bigoted, sexist and misogynistic. To creator Norman Lear, it was a satire although many viewers considered it more a documentary.
Gavin was uncomfortable with the material and immediately knew he wouldn’t be able to portray such a character, even in a comedy. He turned it down. Carroll O’Connor took it on and it became a hit. It ran for nine seasons and netted a trove of Emmy Awards (including four for O’Connor). There were no hard feelings. All In The Family wasn’t the door of opportunity he’d failed to knock on but it led directly to his first great television success.
Almost immediately after turning down All In The Family, Gavin auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, boss of a fictional television news team that would be at the centre of a new comedy called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, he sensed that a hard-nosed yet soft-hearted martinet wasn’t quite his speed and he asked for and won the role of Murray, a sort of Everyman.
Murray was much more a Gavin creation and it resonated with audiences. The show was an ensemble project with even the titular star barely bigger than her supporting cast. Many of the friends he made on set, such as Betty White, continue to the present day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a huge success, running for seven seasons and picking up an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards (a record not broken until Frasier in 2002).
When it ended in 1977, Gavin wondered whether he’d come close to having the same experience, the same enjoyment in turning up each day to work with a close bunch of friends, ever again.
The answer came soon enough. Gavin was offered two pilots. One was a Western with Jeff Bridges in the lead. The other was actually the third pilot to be filmed for an idea that producer Aaron Spelling couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. The first two efforts hadn’t quite gelled and were turned down; some of the previous cast were held over for a third try.
The role of Captain was begging (the first pilot in 1976 had Australian actor Ted Hamilton – known to local audiences from Division 4 – as the Captain; the second Quinn Redeker, an actor best remembered for Days Of Our Lives but who notably received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Deer Hunter).
Just a few months after the second pilot had been turned down, Gavin and the cast were shooting exteriors aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. In an echo of his Lou Grant experience, the initial Love Boat script called for the Captain to be quite strict, a disciplinarian. Gavin suggested softening the character, making him more of a father figure. Spelling agreed, the pilot was completed. And the top-rating US ABC network, which was already airing smash-hit Spelling productions of Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, jumped aboard.
And this, as they say in the classics, is where I came in. At the appointed time to meet Gavin MacLeod, I was ushered to his suite, armed with notepad, pen, copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking (and an Extra Fine Point Sharpie in black, for the all-important autograph), camera and digital voice recorder.
Oh, and eight pages of notes. Did I mention I was a huge fan? Of The Love Boat, 70s televisions and Hollywood in general? Just saying. So, anyway, eight pages of notes didn’t seem excessive for a one-hour interview, although the 42 points I’d bullet-marked for discussion may have tipped the scales slightly into the overly optimistic category.
In an interview situation, I’m happy to take a passive role. Turn the recorder on, chat a little while assessing the interviewee, point them towards the desired subject and do the occasional sheep-dogging but, if they want to digress and it seems relevant or interesting, let them.
An interview will rarely progress the way you envisage. It can be one of those brightly-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree that reveals a lump of coal. Or it can hold the most magical, enthralling of treats. You just never know what you’re going to get. Some of my best interviews have come from the most unlikely of sources, often because I allowed them to talk about what interested them, without too much in the way of interruption or continually dragging them back to the designated subjects.
Gavin MacLeod greeted me warmly, his handshake firm, his smile genuine. It was soon obvious that this was going to be one of those magical times, when all I needed to do was to switch on the recorder.
Stories, anecdotes, recollections, they all came thick and fast, a lifetime of funny, heart-warming recollections, delivered in a style that recalled Milton Berle and a million other Borscht Belt comedians that Gavin would have associated with in the old days. Gavin was raised a Catholic and remains a committed Christian but there’s a certain rhythm to the delivery, a way showbiz veterans tell a story that borrows much from Jewish traditions; comedic, self-effacing, annotated with a little gentle kvetching.
Aside from the acting roles he did land, an interesting aside were those that were almost his. It was his long friendship with director Blake Edwards that provided the best instances. Edwards put him into the comedy classic, The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers and allowed him to improvise a quick, wonderful scene with a hairpiece. Such was the high regard that Gavin was held by Edwards, that he was considered for numerous other parts. Gavin almost took the Peter Falk role in The Great Race (1965) and the part of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) that was eventually played by Mickey Rooney. It was on the set of Breakfast that Gavin first met Audrey Hepburn.
Yet I’m more eager to learn more about The Love Boat and Gavin is happy to accommodate me. He revealed that one of the pleasures of playing Captain Merrill Stubbing was in meeting so many of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Having three plots running in each episode allowed any number of actors the chance to shine and it’d be easier to list those in Hollywood who didn’t appear on the show.
In terms of oldest to youngest, Love Boat guest stars ranged from silent movie stars Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor (in 1929, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and Luise Rainer (still living in London at the age of 104, she has the distinction of being the first actor to win two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress, for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937), to such 70s pop cultural staples as Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Bob Mackie.
Gavin was often awestruck when meeting so many he’d idolised over the years, yet their own reactions could be even more surprising.
“Can you imagine going to work, and there would be people like Helen Hayes, the first lady of American theatre, and Mildred Natwick. I’ve been on the stage since I was four years old and I wanted to be like all these people, and here they are on my set and they’re saying how nervous they are. Helen Hayes said to me that she did one appearance on The Love Boat and was seen by more people than had seen her in her entire career on stage.”
It was such a great honour working with so many fine actors, Gavin says. “They all knew their lines, they were all prepared.” The difference between traditional and modern actors was readily apparent, though. “If they were from the theatre, it’d be one, maybe two takes. If they were from television, it may be eight or nine takes.”
Gavin gleefully recounts those actors who appeared the most. He mentions Charo, an exuberant Spanish-American entertainer who shtick revolved around her generous figure and penchant for mangled English (a 70s version of Sofia Vergara), who racked up eight appearances. “She was so much fun,” he offered. And close friend Florence Henderson (Mrs Brady from The Brady Bunch), the record holder with 14 times.
Gavin’s wife, Patti, who he married in 1974, divorced in the early 80s, and remarried in 1985, played five different roles on seven episodes.
There were also the cross-over episodes with other Aaron Spelling shows, where the Love Boat cast interacted with characters from Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.
Among Gavin’s favourite episodes, he keeps returning to a two-part episode in Season 5 called The Love Boat Follies. It had an amazing cast including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a tribute to old-time Hollywood musicals. Incorporating several dream sequence song-and-dance numbers, it allowed Gavin, resplendent in a sequined captain’s uniform, to effortlessly show off a different range of skills.
Gavin recalls that Merman and Channing got on each other’s nerves due to a long-running dispute about who would be collected first each morning by the studio’s limo service. “That episode was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. It didn’t win favour with the critics but that’s no surprise; those who felt obliged to determine the public’s taste rarely cut The Love Boat any slack, a situation that, all these years later, still makes him laugh. “It’s great to be part of something the critics hated but was so successful.”
Another favourite was also a two-parter from Season Five in 1981, which was filmed in Sydney although the visit wasn’t quite everything Gavin could have anticipated. The plot line revolved around the Love Boat crew gathering for the wedding of cruise director Julie McCoy.
Filming had progressed well and included the usual scenes of petting kangaroos and other wildlife. The wedding was scheduled for the day before they were to return to the United States and the penultimate scene was where Captain Stubing would give Julie away to her fiancé, played by Anthony Andrews.
The church was St Mark’s in Darling Point, which would gain a further soupcon of notoriety just a few years later as the place where Elton John married Renate Blauel. On this day, however, rehearsals went well but, when filming commenced and Gavin had to chase Julie as she fled the church in tears, he fell on the uneven flagstones and broke his ankle. For the last few scenes remaining, he was strapped to a trolley and photographed from the waist up.
He has since returned to Sydney a few times. “I just love the people,” he enthuses.
A good friend of Gavin’s who made multiple appearances on The Love Boat is Betty White, who was also part of the ensemble on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “She’s a National Treasure,” he says. Gavin joined her in filming a recent Air New Zealand air safety video and became the target of tabloid newspapers, reporting they’d had an on-set affair. He laughs it off. “Betty is 93, I’m 83; we’re just happy we can walk.”
The ship on which we were conducting this interview, the Sun Princess, has its own Love Boat connection. In 1998, it was the setting for The Love Boat: The Next Wave, a short-lived continuation produced by Aaron Spelling and starring Robert Ulrich as the Captain. It lasted just two seasons but one episode brought together the original Love Boat crew for a reunion.
While Captain Stubing by this time has been elevated to Commodore, the most disturbing aspect has yet to be verified. The series hasn’t been released on video or DVD and only the sketchiest of synopsis is available on the Net yet such that is available suggests that Julie McCoy and the lovable yet romantically-indiscriminate Doc express their long-submerged passions for each other.
Gavin has no memory of this storyline and is rather horrified at the prospect. “That’s so unrealistic, it couldn’t happen,” he says finally. “I would see her more with Isaac. They were very close friends.”
For those who are wondering, the original Love Boat hasn’t fared so well. The Pacific Princess, launched in 1971, had a long and illustrious career, serving under the Princess Cruises banner until 2002. In 2013, it was broken up for scrap metal in a Turkish salvage yard; in a bizarre coda, two workers dismantling the ship died when overcome by toxic gases.
Gavin could have carried on this conversation for far longer and I would have been more than happy to listen. Over the next few days in his company, I watched him interact with the passengers; he was always gracious and patient, happy to answer their questions, scribble an autograph or pose for photographs. At the Princess Theatre, he hosted a chat about his career in front of a capacity crowd, and charmed them all.
For someone of his age and experience, it would be excusable if he wished some peace from his ever-adoring public but he never disappointed. He had a genuine commitment to giving his fans his best, to returning the complement they’d shown him over the years by keeping his shows at the top of the ratings and paying to see his movies.
Unlike many celebrities, there’s no sense that he feels more privileged than anyone else. He’s just like you and I, only his gifts have led him along a different path. He’s had a good life, his hard work and talent has paid off, and he seems genuinely delighted that he is still attracting the love and respect of people he’s never met.
Gavin MacLeod is a fine ambassador for Princess Cruises and doubtless a marketing asset. But he also reminds us that nostalgia isn’t such a shallow pursuit, that in recalling the good times, whether twenty-five months or twenty-five years ago, is a way of commemorating our lives, loves and experiences and those special to us. Of putting aside our differences, the mis-steps and tribulations, of slipping into that deep timeless reservoir of remembrance and bathing in its warm waters.
For me, all it took was meeting one regular guy who has lived a most extraordinary life.
Gavin MacLeod aboard the Sun Princess. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance from yours truly:
Gavin MacLeod co-stars with Betty White in this entertaining Air New Zealand in-flight safety video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-5gjkh4r3g
Words © David Latta