A Conversation With The Captain

Peter Knego spends an afternoon chatting with Gavin MacLeod, the star of television’s “The Love Boat”, whose popularity is often credited with spawning the modern cruise industry.
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One of MacLeod’s most notorious roles as the despicable “Big Chicken” on two episodes of “Hawaii 5-0”. Wikimedia commons.

Gavin MacLeod, at a remarkably spry and vibrant 86, is an actor’s actor that has done it all. Through a succession of parts playing “heavies” on television shows like “Perry Mason,” “The Untouchables” and “Hawaii 5-0”, being cast as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” Murray Slaughter and his starring role as Captain Stubing on “The Love Boat”, his face and voice are deeply woven into the American pop cultural fabric.

With Donald Sutherland, Stuart Margolin, Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Perry Lopez in “Kelly’s Heroes”. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.
MacLeod in “Kelly’s Heroes”. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

Along the way, he’s chalked up countless stage performances and dozens of film parts, including the Cary Grant submarine flick “Operation Petticoat”, Robert Wise’s “The Sand Pebbles”, and the epic World War Two adventure “Kelly’s Heroes,” to name a just a few.

“The Love Boat” cast aboard the REGAL PRINCESS in 2014.

Today, McLeod is the proud ambassador to Princess Cruises, the mega cruise line now owned by Carnival Corporation that operates eighteen massive ships. By comparison, when “The Love Boat” made its television debut in 1977 and gave cruising its big boost, Princess operated just three relatively small ships. Were it not for the success of that show, helmed by MacLeod’s charming and affable Captain Stubing, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the industry would look today.

Backlit with Gavin in Rancho Mirage.

As waiters darted around us in a Rancho Mirage diner not far from his home, MacLeod shared some of his most vivid memories. In our three hour visit, I hardly made a dent in an otherwise delicious Cobb salad, not wanting to miss a single gesture or nuance. While capturing the latter part of our conversation on video, I had to fight back laughter and even a tear or two when one of his stories veered into something disarmingly funny or unexpectedly sad. This is a man who has experienced every aspect of life from the deepest, alcohol-induced throes of despair to the height of stardom and ultimately, the joy of salvation.

Press conference aboard the REGAL PRINCESS with “The Love Boat” cast. Copyright Peter Knego 2014.

All the plaudits from my colleagues who have previously shared similar encounters with MacLeod did not prepare me for his charm and generosity of spirit. In retrospect, I wonder how many times he’s answered these very same questions and yet had the heart and grace to make me feel as though each was the first.

So here they are, the transcripts of a conversation with the man behind Captain Stubing and so many other wonderful characters over the years:

PK: Prior to The Love Boat, had you ever taken a cruise or made a crossing on an ocean liner?

GML: No. I’m from upstate New York and we never had many ships up there (laughs). My uncle, on the other hand, was in the maritime service and he traveled all over the world. He had a wonderful captain’s outfit. Little did I know I’d be wearing one years later…

MacLeod donning his captain’s uniform with the cast of “The Love Boat”, clockwise from bottom left: Lauren Tewes as Julie (the cruise director), Fred Grandy as Gopher, Ted Lange as Isaac, Bernie Koppel as Doc and Jill Whelan as Vicki. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

PK: The Love Boat continues to bring joy to so many. It wasn’t the Shakespeare of its day but it holds up so well. Are there any particular episodes that you remember most?

GML: When I first met Aaron (Spelling — the Love Boat’s producer), he had just submitted the script to us but my agent wasn’t too keen on it. I said I’d like to read it, so I took it to my house in Palm Springs where my wife read it first. After the first ten pages, she said, “I’m telling you honey, this is going to go if they get the right people!” So, then I read it and I thought it sounded like another show (“My Little Margie”) but it really tugged at my heart strings. One story with a character played by Phil Silvers, an old Jewish guy that comes on the ship — he’s sick, he’s going to die but there’s no more room in the cemetery back in the Bronx where he lives. And so, he’s gonna die on the ship but he meets someone and they fall for each other. It’s beautiful and she goes to see him just before the cruise ends and….he’s gone. He died.

“So, tell me you’ll say yes!” Screen grab from “Conversations With The Captain”, copyright Peter Knego 2017.

GML, ctd.: And that touched my heart, so I asked Aaron if you are going to always have a show like that. He said, “I’m going to have a sophisticated comedy, a broad comedy and one that will touch your heart.” And then he says, “So tell me you’ll say yes!” (laughs) And my agent had already told me, “Don’t tell him you’re gonna say yes when you see him!” Meanwhile, I had been considering this other script that was a little too negative, so we ended up making the deal for “The Love Boat.” It was also nice to work with Bernie (Koppel) again. He played the doctor — we had worked together on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Get Smart,” things like that.

With wife Patty on board the first SEA PRINCESS in the Australian episode of “The Love Boat”. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

GML, ctd.: I also loved the one where my wife Patty came on. She played opposite the wonderful Jim Backus and I was very protective of her. The cast and crew gave me a t-shirt at the end of the shoot that read, “Captain Stage Mother”. They were very cute. (laughs)

“The Love Boat” cast and guest stars reunited aboard the REGAL PRINCESS in 2014. Photo and copyright Mike Masino.

PK: And the big stars, that was all part of the original concept for “The Love Boat”?

GML: “Oh yes! That was all part of what Aaron told me. Everything Aaron Spelling said, he did. He was fabulous. Working with Ginger Rogers was wonderful. We did a little time step with her and Jill (Wheelan, who played Captain Stubing’s daughter Vicki).

MacLeod in “The Love Boat Follies”. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

GML, ctd.: And some of those musical numbers, I mean…The Love Boat Follies! Can you imagine? This has never happened in the history of the American theater — you had Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Della Reese and Ann Miller on the same show! With Van Johnson and Cab Calloway! Come on, it doesn’t get any better than that! That show, you never knew what was required of you. They even gave the captain a number. (sings) “Got my tweeds breast, got my best vest, all I need now is the girl…” And I was surrounded by all these gorgeous girls. It was heaven, I never believed this could happen to me.

PK: With The Love Boat, at first you were going to be a heavy but I understand the role morphed a bit.

GML: In the pilot, he (Captain Stubing) was a feared human being showing up to take over his ship and I remember they painted a terrible picture of him. At first, I thought it could be a very interesting actor’s element. I could arrive in a golf cart with sunglasses on — there’s nothing more ominous than trying to make contact with someone when you don’t know what is going on behind those glasses! But then we realized that if we were going to be a hit, to come into people’s houses, their bedrooms, kitchens, or wherever they have television sets…to go week after week, niceness is what works. Authority is what works, not ominous. And so we slowly started to change him. There’s nothing like love to make a show grow and he became a father symbol, a grandfather, a symbol of authority. It worked out right and I’m very grateful…

MV ISLAND PRINCESS, twin sister of the PACIFIC PRINCESS and frequent setting for “The Love Boat”, departing Los Angeles. Copyright Peter Knego 1996.

PK: On the original Love Boat ships, themselves, the ISLAND and PACIFIC PRINCESS, was there any feature in particular that you remember?

GML: The bridge was the place that I always loved visiting. I felt on top of the world there. And, you always think the captain is the guy that is “doing it” but you have this other guy with the little steering wheel… If they knew! (laughs)

A screen grab by Daniel Lotten from “The Love Boat” showing MacLeod in the Carousel Lounge of either the ISLAND PRINCESS or PACIFIC PRINCESS.

GML, ctd.: I also loved the Carousel Lounge, because that is where we had the shows. When Princess started to expand and I would go to see the new ships, the first place I would go to was the theaters — I always wanted to see what the theaters were like. I remember in Italy, at the shipyard, I was with a bunch of the press and I looked at the stage…and I looked at the wings…and I thought “You could do “Les Mis” here!” It’s so different from that little Carousel Lounge…

Charo performs aboard the REGAL PRINCESS. Copyright Peter Knego 2014.

PK: Any more stories you’d like to share about the people that you worked with on The Love Boat?

GML: Well, Charo, when we named the last ship (REGAL PRINCESS), she did her nightclub act and she was out of the world. She made the most appearances as herself while Florence (Henderson) did the most as an actress and Artie Johnson made the most as a male actor. Those big stars, for me, that was so cool. Sir John Mills came on, the first time he’d ever worked with his two daughters, Haley and Juliet, ever, in his life! I shook his hand in the opening scene and it was all wet and he said, “It’s rather like going back to school, old boy. How different it is to fit in with a group that has been there for a while and you are the outsider.” That brilliant actor…and his wife, Lady Mary, was sitting there, watching, so you had all four of them.

With Andy Warhol on the set of “The Love Boat”. Image from “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.
With Helen Hayes on “The Love Boat”. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking.”

GML, ctd.: And Raymond Burr, whom I’d worked with supporting so many times before, and now he’s on my show! It was a big kick! And Ray Milland, he was on our first trip to Alaska. He had so many stories about John Wayne, when he got married (Milland was Wayne’s best man). That was the joy about doing that show. You got to meet people who were your heroes…like Helen Hayes! And they would tell you stories about their lives.

Having a moment with Mary on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Wikimedia Commons.

PK: Mary Tyler Moore just passed. Can you share any thoughts or memories about her and the show?

GML: Mary Tyler Moore. Out of four stars, she gets six! I had returned from doing “Kelly’s Heroes” in Yugoslavia and I had just been cast in “Carousel” (I was doing Jigger in that and my kids were playing the Snow Children) when my agent called and said Mary Tyler Moore is doing a pilot and they want to talk to me. I said, “Oh great, tell them I’m very interested!”

The original cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Ted Knight, Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Valerie Harper, MTM and Cloris Leachman. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

GML, ctd: I remembered working with her on the Dick Van Dyke Show and she and her husband (former chairman of NBC and co-founder of MTM Enterprises) Grant Tinker used to come and see some of the plays I did. So, they sent over two scripts: one was “Rhoda’s Mother” and the other was the pilot — and written on the script was “Gavin, for the part of Lou Grant”.

“Are they killing something out there?” Screen grab from “Conversations With The Captain”, copyright Peter Knego 2017.

GML, ctd.: So, I read the script and thought “Wow, this is really good! This is really fun!” (interrupted by the sound of plates crashing in the kitchen) Somebody’s getting fired back there for breaking all the plates! (we both veer into laughter) The only thing was, I didn’t think I was right for the part of Lou Grant. Having worked with her on Dick Van Dyke, I felt more like Mary’s contemporary and not her boss. And I wasn’t right for Ted Baxter but there’s Murray, this writer — he didn’t have that much to do but he was kind of nice with those “shoot ‘em” lines.  So I went to see them and I read the part of Lou and got the right laughs but it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had my hand on the door, and I said, “You know, you guys, I really like Lou Grant, it’s a great part, but I want to read for Murray Slaughter.” (after even louder sounds of plates crashing in kitchen, he leans into the camera, smiles and rolls his eyes) Are they killing something out there? Is a parade passing by? What’s going ON! (more laughter and a moment of recovery for both of us) SO, I read a few lines and they laughed and as I walk out, I see Ed Asner pacing back and forth. About two hours later, my agent calls and said they want me to do the part.

Final bow with the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

GML, ctd.: So, I was cast as Murray and the last (principal) to be cast was Ted Knight. Ted and I were friends from the first day I arrived in California, the first actor I met. And then for the part of Rhoda’s mother, they were thinking about Maureen Stapleton, who is brilliant but I said, “Do you know Nancy Walker?” And they said “No.” And I said, “You don’t know who Nancy Walker is?” She was directing “Fallen Angels” on Broadway at that time, one of the funniest shows ever. And so, months later, we got to Rhoda’s mother and Nancy Walker showed up (beams a huge smile). We became very good friends and that started a whole new part of her career. That show was good for everybody. You talk about people who cared, loved each other. Love is all around and it was on that show, principally because of Mary. You know, the pace is always set by the leader and that’s what I always tried to do on “The Love Boat.”

Latter day cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” with Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Betty White, MTM and Georgia Engel. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

PK: I understand you are still very close with Betty White.

GML: When Betty turned 85, I said she should be a treasure but now that she is 95, she should be a national monument! She should be right up there with all those presidents and I know she’d show them a good time! You know, she was on “To Tell The Truth” as a judge last season and she was so funny, so wonderful. And then it comes on this year and she’s not there! Well, I said, “I’m not going to watch that! They took Betty White off the show!” And then, I read last week that she’s got a new series! The last time I saw Mary in person was at Betty’s 90th party at a hotel in downtown L.A. We were in the green room and Mary came in and she wasn’t doing so hot and she kissed me on the lips. For seven years or more, she always kissed me on the cheek — I think her eyesight wasn’t up to par. She was an inspiration to everybody who knew her. What an honor when you think about who you get to work with and I always did say what a lucky guy I was to sit across from her. When you see the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode, you can see her great acting. And yet she was always Mary Tyler Moore, except when you see her as Donald Sutherland’s (cold, distant) wife in “Ordinary People.” That showed you her brilliance.
PK: So, can we talk about your first series as a regular cast member on “McHale’s Navy”?

GML: I’ll tell you what happened. I’d gone to New York to do a play called “The Captains and the Kings”. It went across the country and then opened in New York. We had two little children then and….well, I had a wonderful role but just one scene. I played Roy Cohn and Charlie Ruggles, that great actor, he played Senator McCarthy — under fictitious names. The cast was a powerhouse: Dana Andrews played the first Jewish admiral; Lee Grant was in it; Peter Graves — his first Broadway show — and Actor’s Studio guys like Joe Campanella. Paul Gregory produced it and said we were sold out for three weeks. I said, “Then I can bring my family?” So I brought the wife, two little kids, we opened….and then we’re going to close! In seven days! So I had to come back (to L.A.) and my house was going up in Granada Hills — (it cost) $24,650, which was a lot in 1962! We were waiting for the house to get done, so we got a little apartment on Lankershim Boulevard and I was just waiting. I did an hour special on the Brinks Robbery, which was enough to cover the closing costs on the house: $1,000. So I prayed and prayed that God would give me the right thing and we went for it.

Portraying the drug-addicted Leach in the groundbreaking play “The Connection”, co-starring Robert Blake. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

GML, ctd: On the first day of moving into the house, Robert Blake and his wife Sondra were there. We didn’t even have any furniture. And I got a telegram from Universal saying we’d like to see you about “McHale’s Navy.” So I went down there and they guaranteed me 42 weeks out of the year! Salary! That’s the answer — I didn’t have to worry about paying for the house! That was going to get us through — but I didn’t think about the part. The part was (pauses) there. And you had Ernie (Borgnine), Joe Flynn and Tim Conway, who was new on the scene. There were three stars and so many people on a half hour show. My part was basically reduced to “What are we gonna do now, Skip?”. That could have been my theme song and I got very frustrated about that. Ted (Knight) came on as a guest star — this was years before the Mary Tyler Moore Show — and he says, “How can you do this? And I said, “Do what?”. He says, “You’re like a glorified extra.” And I thought about it and I started to get depressed. I really got loaded one night — my value at the time was coming from the type of parts I was playing — so I thought I would just end it. Drive off Mulholland Drive, near Robert Blake’s house, as a matter of fact. I was up there, so inebriated, I started to go over and then something put my foot down (on the brake) — it wasn’t me — and I stopped. (Pauses) And then I collected myself. I said, “How come it stopped? I was supposed to go over.” (Sighs) So I went to Robert’s — I don’t even know what time it was but he does. He was seeing a shrink and he told me, “You gotta go see him!” And I did. After just a few months, the doctor told me, “You know what you have to do, you have to get out of that show.” Saul Mitchell was our producer and I went down to see him and I explained what was going on with me. I said, “You can save me, you can save my kids, my wife, if you can just let me out so I can start my career again.” He said, “Of course!” And he let me out. Three days later, I got a part on “My Favorite Martian” for three episodes and then before I finished that last show, I got a call from Robert Wise, the big director, who asked, “Gavin, how tall are you?” And I answered, “How tall do you want me to be?” “He said, “I’m doing a movie with Steve McQueen.” “Oh, I said (laughing), he’s at least an inch and a half taller than I am!” That movie was “The Sand Pebbles”, which got me acting again and building, utilizing my gifts, if that is what you want to call them.

“The Sand Pebbles” with Richard Crenna, Steve McQueen, Barney Phillips and Charles Robinson. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

PK: So you had a great relationship with Robert Wise, the legendary film director…

GML: Ironically, Joe Jordan, this wonderful author, has just penned a book on Robert Wise and he asked me to do the forward. For Robert Wise, I did “I Want to Live” (starring Susan Hayward as a felon on death row) and then “The Sand Pebbles” and loved him like a father. When I got hot from “The Love Boat,” this big awards show asked me to present him and in my speech, I said, “If I could choose my father, Robert Wise would be him.” He came out and seemed surprised and we hugged each other. He became ill shortly after and then he died. I get emotional when I talk about it but isn’t it wonderful that I got to tell him that in front of the whole world?

Posing with the PACIFIC PRINCESS. From “This Is Your Captain Speaking”.

PK: Do you remember the last time you saw the PACIFIC PRINCESS?

GML: When you reach my age, there are so many moments you know you’ll never forget. One of those was — and I was just a make believe captain — I’d never handled or steered the ship.  Until once.  The PACIFIC PRINCESS was being sold and it was leaving New York harbor, the last trip for Princess Cruises. And so I was asked to go to New York for publicity reasons. All the press was going to be there. It was very emotional. People would ask, “Why do you want to be on such a small ship compared to what is out there now?” Many people had said they had their honeymoon on the ship, other couples said they conceived their first child on the ship. It was very touching to realize how these ships become a part of humanity, of life and they provided moments people will never forget. I had the job that day, for the first time ever, in real life, to take the ship out of the slip in New York City. I had a real captain here (indicates to his right) and a deputy captain here (indicates to his left) in case I did the wrong thing. And all the cameras…and I pulled the ship out.

PACIFIC PRINCESS departing New York. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2000.

GML, ctd.: And then I left the ship in a tender and watched as it was still backing up, all the people came to the one side and they were waving at me and I was waving back to them. It was like waving goodbye to memories, to experiences, to moments that will never, ever happen again. I’ve been representing Princess Cruises ever since and I’ll never forget waving good bye to the beginning. Good bye to love.

In Rancho Mirage with his must-read, “This Is Your Captain Speaking”. Photo by and copyright Peter Knego 2017.

Like all good things, our get-together had come to an end. We exchanged gifts, his being a signed copy of his fascinating memoir, “This Is Your Captain Speaking” and mine, an acoustic ceiling disc from the Carousel Lounge and a strip of aluminum hand rail rescued from the ISLAND PRINCESS, the unsung stand-in for the identical PACIFIC PRINCESS, the named ship in The Love Boat Series. It was an afternoon I will always cherish.

“This Is Your Captain Speaking”, available on board Princess Cruises ships and via Amazon.

Very, very special thanks: Karen Tetherow Candy

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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