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Remembering “The Love Boat’s” Gavin MacLeod

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Remembering “The Love Boat’s” Gavin MacLeod

In the early 1980s, when “The Love Boat” was navigating prime time waters, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “McHale’s Navy” were still in re-runs, an Entertainment Tonight poll named Gavin MacLeod the most recognizable man on TV. If they had taken a poll of the most likable star, he would have topped that list too. Truth is, everybody liked Gavin.

Love Boat” guest star Suzanne Somers told me: “Gavin was the true definition of a star, but more than that, he was a light. He lit up the room, and everyone loved him. He makes everyone in the room feel fortunate that they are there.” 

My friend Jerry Mathers was another guest star who could attest to Gavin’s genuinely warm personality: “It was so much fun’ sailing’ on ‘The Love Boat’ with my ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family. Gavin was so gracious and engaging, and he made working on the production such a wonderful experience for us all!

And then there was “Happy Days” mom, Marion Ross, who not only appeared on “The Love Boat,” she married the Captain! In real life, Marion and Gavin were long-time friends and co-stars dating back to their work on 1959’s Operation Petticoat, so she was a natural choice to play Emily Stubing in a number of episodes. Marion told me, “We had a great romance on ‘The Love Boat.’ Gavin was a wonderful man and a wonderful talent.” (By the way, Marion still has the cake topper from their on-screen wedding).

I first got to know Gavin back in 2013 when I interviewed him about his newly released autobiography, “This is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith, and Life.” He was 82 at the time, and I asked him why he waited so long to write his memoirs. Said Gavin, “I only have a few years left, and I wanted to do it while I could still remember.” In the years since then, we stayed in touch, and I always enjoyed our conversations. Sadly, I will no longer have the privilege of speaking with one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. Gavin passed away on May 29. He is survived by his wife Patti and four children. Gavin MacLeod was 90.

Born Allan George See, Gavin grew up in Pleasantville, NY, and was bitten by the acting bug in kindergarten, where he starred in a Mother’s Day play.

Gavin:  My teacher used to say I was the cutest boy in the class (because) I had won the Charming Child contest from the New York Daily Mirror. I played the part of a little boy who was trying to decide what to give his mother for Mother’s Day. He had no money, so he went into the forest, and a bear said, “The thing to give your mother is a bear hug.” So I gave the girl who was playing my mother a big hug, and the audience applauded. I thought, “They like me! I want to do more of this!” And that was the beginning of me wanting to be an actor.

Like most struggling young New York actors of that era, Allan (by then known as Gavin MacLeod) took other jobs while waiting for his big break. He worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and as a cashier at Jim Downey’s Steak House, a popular hang-out in the heart of the theatre district. Over time, Gavin got used to meeting big stars, but he wasn’t prepared for one particular customer who came in for a bite after working all day at the Actors Studio.

Gavin: One night, I looked up across the bar, and there was Eli Wallach with Marilyn Monroe. She had on an open blouse and a sweater over her shoulder and was wearing no make-up. And I thought, “Oh my God, it’s Marilyn Monroe!” They came over and sat down right across from me. She didn’t know I was an actor then. She just thought I was a young guy with a bad hairpiece. I said, “Hello, how are you, and how do you like New York?” And Marilyn said, “It’s so different here. Everybody is so nice to me”. Then I said, “Well, you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” and she laughed. And I said, “You know what I’m going to do when I get home at 1:30 in the morning? I’m going to call all of my friends and tell them I met Marilyn Monroe”. That’s when she really laughed.

A year later, Gavin made it to Broadway as a replacement actor in “A Hatful of Rain,” and from there, he appeared in a number of live TV dramas. Then in 1962, he landed the role of sailor Joseph Happy Haines in “McHale’s Navy,” and all was well until his friend Ted Knight came aboard to do a cameo.

Gavin: Ted said, “Gavin, how can you do this? You’re just a glorified extra”. What he said began to weigh on me, and I started drinking every day after work. I wasn’t myself. I was sort of disintegrating.

Gavin left “McHale’s Navy,” stopped drinking, and was selective about the roles he took in film and on television. The move paid off, and he was offered the role of Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But MacLeod thought he’d be more believable as Mary’s buddy Murray Slaughter, and the rest is comedy history. The Lou Grant role went to Ed Asner, who came to know Gavin as a trusted and loyal friend, as evidenced by this story that Ed related to me recently:

“When my wife and I were having trouble, Gavin was such a good friend that he would drop by and offer to help me or Nancy, and he became a good friend to both of us. He was the only one from the show who offered his support, and his offer of friendship to her and me was a noble act.” 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended production in 1977, and within two weeks, Aaron Spelling asked Gavin to assume the helm of “The Love Boat” as Captain Merrill Stubing. After making 250 voyages and winning 4 Emmys, “The Love Boat” ended its run in 1987, but Gavin continued on as the face of Princess Cruise Lines. Meanwhile, he turned down choice roles on TV in order to appear in religious films and devote his life to Christ.

Given Gavin’s immense popularity over the years, I once asked him if there was ever a time when fame went to his head. Said Gavin, “No, because I know how things can change overnight. I never believed all of the publicity. I don’t want to seem unduly humble, but I am a very grateful person. God has really had His hand on my life.” The Captain has spoken.

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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