2013 Flashback: My interview with Gavin MacLeod of ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Love Boat’ fame
He died at age 90 on May 29, 2021
Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty
LOVE BOAT - "Never Say Goodbye/New Woman, A Trail Romance" which aired on November 3, 1979. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images) GAVIN MACLEOD
Born in 1969, I was a wee bit too young to fully appreciate “Mary Tyler Moore” but glommed onto “Love Boat” from the age of 8 until I was well into my teens. It was my go-to show to watch on Saturday nights for years, a template to learn how to confront and resolve romantic issues in an hour’s time while enjoying all the guest stars that popped in each week.
Captain Merrill Stubing was the ideal captain: trustworthy, wise, respectable. Originally, the captain was written to be a lot tougher and gruffer but MacLeod injected a likability to his character that contributed greatly to the show’s success.
“I tried to make him a nice paternal father image,” MacLeod said in a phone interview last month, “a caring person.”
He also inserted his own battle with the bottle into Stubing’s character, a recovering alcoholic.
The book covers his entire 82 years, from his early days barely getting by in New York City working as a deli cashier to getting some edgy parts in stage plays to great character roles in film and TV in the 1960s.
He had his breakthrough role on “Mary Tyler Moore” as regular guy Murray Slaughter (though he originally auditioned for Lou Grant), which led to his starring role on “The Love Boat.”
“I’ve lived my entire life doing what other people had written,” he said. “That’s what actors do. So I was talking to my wife. I think this is time to write something in my own voice. Get people to know who I really am. That’s the motivation for it.”
In his early acting years, he took advantage of his prematurely bald paté in his 20s to nab some tough-guy roles but also donned a toupee when he needed to act closer to his age.
“I had some delicious parts, absolutely delicious,” he said. “I had that bald head playing Big Chicken on ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ I was scary!”
He crossed paths with almost every major star of the era, from Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra to Andy Warhol. He inspired Ryan O’Neal to get into acting. (“That just proves you never know who’s out there watching so you have to give it your all every time,” he said. “That’s the art of acting.”)
He worked with Steve McQueen in a stage play before he became a big movie star. (“He could barely be heard on stage but he already had that movie star presence.”)
In 1986, after “Love Boat” ended its nine-year run, Princess Cruises made MacLeod its spokesman, a role he holds to this day. “It was a gift from God, a match made in heaven,” MacLeod said.
He has seen the company grow from three ships to 17, traveling the world to christen ships that are now several times larger than the original Pacific Princess.
To this day, people call him Captain. One woman recently told him she named her son Gavin after him. At a cruise ship for high-end travel agents, one fan told him the line to see him was longer than that for Mickey Mouse.
In his book, he candidly wrote about his alcoholism that led to the dissolution of his first marriage as well as his level of selfishness that led to his second divorce. He remarried his current wife Patti, who helped him become a born-again Christian.
For several years, he hosted a faith-based show with his wife on Trinity Broadcasting Network. In 2009, he starred in a Christian film “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” that was so impactful to its viewers that MacLeod has turned down all other movie and TV roles since.
“I consider it the greatest honor to serve Him,” he said. “I travel all over the world screening that film. I’m so grateful to God that He’d use me in a piece like that. That’s the candle on my cake. Unless God surprises me, I can’t top that.”
In recent years, he has appeared on “Love Boat” cast reunions on “The Talk” on CBS and NBC’s “Today” show featuring other members of the original cast: Bernie Kopell, Ted Lange, Fred Grandy, Lauren Tewes and Jill Whelan.
One thing he noted in the book I knew nothing about was that all the cast members had divorced at least once. He said he’s surprised they didn’t dub it the “curse of the Love Boat.”
But ultimately, he feels it was a blessing because “everyone is much happier than they were before.”
Other topics we touched on:
His thoughts on former “Mary Tyler Moore” castmate Valerie Harper’s fight with cancer and “Dancing With the Stars”: “I have to hand it to her. The courage to go through that. I’m glad she stopped when she did (she was eliminated week three.). She’s one of the loves of my life.”
A recent convert to... “Duck Dynasty.”: MacLeod isn’t much of a reality show fan but friends convinced him to check it out. “Patti and I had dinner with friends from church. They were recommending ‘Duck Dynasty.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But we watched it one night and we’re absolutely fascinated with that thing. I like those people. They’re good Christian people.”
The late great Ted Knight (Ted Baxter on “Mary Tyler Moore”), who was a good friend of his: “He was a gifted actor. Unfortunately, the world won’t remember him as I saw him: a great dramatic actor way before ‘Mary Tyler Moore.’ The man really had it. He had a great sense of humor, too. I miss him like crazy.” MacLeod wrote a touching chapter about Knight in which he helped Knight, nearing death, see Christ and be at peace with his life. “Every time I start reading that part, I start to lose it,” he said.
And someone created a “Star Trek” intro that aped “The Love Boat.”
And now that I’m deep in the “Love Boat” clip files on YouTube, here are the “Love Boat Mermaids” (!$!)
UPDATE: In 2022, someone with a lot of time on their hands actually edited a 46-minute clip posting almost ever single guest star over the show’s decade-long run in alphabetical order. It’s 901 in total.
And here’s Tom Hanks on “The Love Boat” just before his debut on “Bosom Buddies”:
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.