Once upon a time, a shipload of explorers set a course for adventure, their minds on a new romance. This fling would blossom into a nine-season affair known as The Love Boat. Launching 30 years ago this month, the ABC comedy featured myriad guest stars navigating emotionally choppy waters with the aid of Captain Stubing and his trusty crew. Part globe-spanning fairy tale, part horny corn, The Love Boat brightened untold Saturday evenings for millions of households. Remember when that night of TV was actually entertaining? To celebrate this anniversary — and because the networks now air only reruns and COPS (and reruns of COPS) on Saturdays — we invite you to come aboard and stroll down our lido deck of memories. You could even say we’ve been expecting you.
I: Finding Its Sea Legs
In 1975, ABC tapped producer Doug Cramer (Love, American Style) to adapt The Love Boats. Jeraldine Saunders’ book about her adventures as a cruise hostess. The network aired a two-hour cruise-to-Mexico movie the next year that starred Ted Hamilton as the captain, Dick Van Patten as the ship’s doctor, and Don Adams, Gabe Kaplan, and Florence Henderson as passengers. The ratings were impressive, and Cramer joined forces with rising TV titan Aaron Spelling to make a second movie with a different cast, including Ted Lange as affable bartender Isaac, Fred Grandy as adorkable yeoman-purser Gopher, and Bernie Kopell as lustful Doc Bricker.
Lange I met with Doug and he said, ”You get seasick?” I said, ”No.” He says, ”The network likes you. They think you’re funny.” That was the meeting.
Kopell It sounded like a nice little paid vacation.
Grandy They said the character’s name is Gopher. I assumed because he runs around, does odd jobs, and is considered to be the fool. I said, ”I don’t care if you call him Dorothy — as long as the job is steady.”
Although the second film fared even better, the producers continued to tinker, adding Gavin MacLeod, fresh off The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the stern yet compassionate Captain Stubing; the night before shooting began, Hollywood newcomer Cynthia Lauren Tewes won the role of cheery cruise director Julie McCoy.
MacLeod My agent said, ”Aaron Spelling wants you to do this thing called The Love Boat.” I said, ”What do you think about it?” He said, ”I think it sucks. Do you want to read it?” I said, ”Yeah.” I read it and said, ”There hasn’t been anything like this on television. This could be interesting…”
Cramer, executive producer [Tewes] came into the office and meshed with everybody, and off we went.
Lange You just loved her. She beamed.
Tewes That first day, standing there in the little outfit, I had to say, ”Hi, welcome aboard, I’m Julie McCoy, your cruise director” a gazillion times. But I kept screwing it up and saying, ”Hi, welcome aboard, I’m Julie MacLeod…” because I was talking to Gavin MacLeod and I was so excited.
The third movie also nabbed nice numbers, but ABC execs weren’t convinced of its series potential (like they were of another Spelling comedy, The San Pedro Beach Bums). Then – ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman delicately nudged his overlords to slip Love Boat into its fall slate.
Silverman I went in to my boss and said, ”Are you crazy? It’s impregnable! You can’t kill it! Put it on!… You have to face the truth: Whether you like it or not, it’s a hit.”
II: Boat Makes Splash, Critics Get Seasick
In summer 1977, episodes were penned frantically, each adhering to a formula of three happy-ending stories: one romance, one comedy, one drama. Two soundstages on the Fox lot housed replicas of the ship’s interiors and exteriors. ”At the time, it was the most expensive set ever built for television,” says Cramer. ”It was over a million dollars.” The series also shot on actual cruises to Mexico and Alaska. (One or two dozen hardbodies were hired as pool decoration for these AARP-centric trips.) But when ‘Love Boat’ debuted, critics weren’t exactly on board. The New York Times called it ”dreadful porridge,” while The Washington Post declared that ”shows like Love Boat pull the median level of mediocrity down to unfathomable lows.”
MacLeod I went to a [press junket]. Most people I knew from The Mary Tyler Moore Show were coming over, saying, ”How could you do a mindless show like this?” I said, ”I did it because I believe in it and I’m going to make people forget their own problems and vicariously see the rest of the world. I did it because I thought it would be a hit.”
Despite daunting scheduling opposite CBS’ The Carol Burnett Show, Love Boat became an immediate success, eventually reaching No. 5, helping fast-track another Spelling series, Fantasy Island, and spawning a few copycats Supertrain?!?!). Beach Bums was yanked from the schedule after a few months.
Silverman [ABC’s] Saturday night had been a graveyard. All of a sudden, the damn show went through the roof, and destroyed Carol Burnett.
MacLeod There was a big party at Chasen’s, and Carol said, ”Gavin, if I had to be knocked off, I’m so glad it was you.”
Playing a reformed alcoholic, MacLeod became an unlikely leading man in shorts (”I got a lot of letters about my legs,” he marvels). Meanwhile, fans began greeting Lange with his signature grin-and-point from the opening credits. That iconic moment? Not in the script.
Lange They set up a fake little bar and said, ”Smile into the lens.” ”You’re kidding me, right?” ”Ted, don’t give me any crap. Just look in the lens and smile.” So being an actor, I said, ”Why am I smiling?” He said: ”Think of your check.” And I went [grins and points], ”What’s my motivation? You’re getting paid, a– hole! Riiight!” [Grins and points]
III: Guest Who’s Coming to Dinner?
More than 1,000 guest stars boarded Love Boat, from future A-listers (Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal) to film legends (Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to athletes and artists (Reggie Jackson, Andy Warhol).
Gordon Farr, producer I got a chance to direct Helen Hayes, Sir John Mills, and Ethel Merman in the same show. Jesus Christ!
Tewes I was so naive. I had to look people up in a book before I would go to work on Monday to see who the new people were. I was always sticking my foot in my mouth.
Lange When the old-timers came on, it was like two virgins after a hooker. Me and Fred, we’d beeline to these guys…. I bought Gene Kelly a drink in Hong Kong. He says, ”Let me pay for this.” I said, ”Oh, no — I want to be able to tell my kids I bought Gene Kelly a drink in Hong Kong.”
Florence Henderson, 8-time guest The set was great fun…. I played so many wives, I’m trying to remember all the people I married. Shecky Greene, Don Adams, Bert Convy…there had to be many more. If you find out, lemme know.
The guest most associated with the show: Charo, another 8-timer. After Spelling saw her act in Las Vegas, she was cast as stowaway-turned-entertainer April.
Gordon Farr Forget ”cuchi-cuchi” — she’s got a smile and a face that just went wowww.
Charo ”Cuchi-cuchi” showed me the way to the bank. That bulls– make me rich.
Cramer We had so many people on the show, and the trade papers made fun of them: If you showed up on Love Boat, you were down on your luck. So Liz Taylor did Hotel but wouldn’t do Love Boat.
Grandy Apparently against a lot of advice to the contrary, the producers decided to hire both Carol Channing and Ethel Merman [for 1982’s musical extravaganza ”The Love Boat Follies”]. According to most show-business legends, they loathed one another. We were all waiting with bated breath to see what was going to happen: Who’s going to strike first? So Ethel and Carol were at the piano working on a number to sing together. Carol thought Ethel was wadding up pieces of tissue and throwing them in Carol’s purse. On a couple of occasions, she said, ”Ethel, don’t do that. That’s very irritating.” Ethel said, ”I’m not doing that, Carol. Leave me alone.” Finally Carol said, ”Don’t tell me you’re not throwing that tissue paper in my purse.” And Ethel took one step back and said, ”Oh, shut your hole!” And the reason this is a good story is because somebody from the next soundstage came over and said, ”What the f– was that?” They’re called soundstages because they’re soundproof, right? That does not apply to Ethel Merman. [Channing doesn’t recall the incident and says the two became good friends on the set.]
With so much focus on the guest stars, the cast often blended into the idyllic background early on.
Tewes We were there for hello and goodbye day. ”Hello, welcome aboard, you are in cabin 346.” ”Goodbye, thanks for sailing with us.” [Then] we’d rent cars, go around islands, and meet on beaches.
Lange Saw the world on Aaron Spelling’s dime.
Eventually, the cast lobbied for more screen time; Lange, Grandy, and Kopell even wrote episodes. The Gopher-Julie romance ”was a telling show because it was one of people’s favorites,” notes Grandy. ”When the producers got wind of that, they said, ‘These relationships are worth exploring as well.”’ In season 3, they’d added some youth with Vicki (Jill Whelan), Captain Stubing’s illegitimate, sweet-cheeked daughter. ”Jill was so precious,” says MacLeod. ”And that story gave me something that wasn’t just fluff.” (Whelan, now a singer, declined to participate in this story.)
IV: The Globe-trotters
An international smash — it was syndicated in more than 100 countries — Love Boat journeyed to increasingly exotic locales. But in 1982, a scary accident occurred in a Turkish taxi: A cigarette ignited some balloons that were inexplicably filled with hydrogen, injuring Tewes, Grandy, and several others; Grandy suffered severe burns on his hands and face.
Grandy It shot flames six feet in the air. The reaction by people outside was we’d been hit by terrorists.
Tewes We had giant pizza bubbles on our hands. I kept saying, ”We need ice, we need ice!” and somebody said, ”Booze?” ”No, we don’t need booze, we need ice!” Well, the word for ice in Turkish is buz. I found that out just a few years ago.
Grandy They get me to the ship. [The doctor] says, ”I have a confession. I am not a physician.” He was a first-year medical student who’d essentially conned his way on to the ship to meet girls. He didn’t even know how to put in an IV. Fortunately [a crew member] was a junkie, so I got the medication I needed.
In 1983, Love Boat visited the Far East, becoming one of the first American TV series allowed into China.
Cramer They had never seen tall, blond American women. We had 10,000 people one day when we were shooting. When John Forsythe kissed Ursula Andress on the Great Wall, we almost got thrown out of China. I was called on the carpet with the film commissioner. It was terrible.
Grandy In Japan, we inadvertently threw away one of Harvey Korman’s hairpieces in a box of sushi.
V: Lovin’ Every Minute of It
Love Boat displayed so much Cupidity — with couples swapping and hopping in and out of bed — it was mocked as ”lust bucket” and ”floating foreplay.”
Lynne Farr, producer Our show was about people taking care of people, even though the network kept trying to throw in ”sizzle.” There was an episode where two old people, separated by the Second World War, meet on the boat. She’s trying to ask delicately if this is really her husband. The network wanted more extras in bikinis with big breasts and big beach balls. In the middle of this scene on a private deck, this woman comes up those stairs with 40-inch breasts, a bikini, and this enormous beach ball. And she throws it up in the air throughout that entire scene. I just about committed suicide.
Cramer It became, possibly, a little one-dimensional. The gonads took over.
The copious romantic exploits of oft-divorced Doc Bricker apparently titillated fans.
Kopell During dinner on the ship, a very nice-looking woman sailed across the dining room and said, ”Dr. Bricker, I just want you to know that whenever I masturbate, I fantasize about you. Have a good evening.” Then she left. That actually happened.
VI: The Real McCoy
While the Love Boaters got along rather swimmingly, there was concern about Tewes, who’d developed a cocaine habit that worsened over the seasons.
Tewes I had a very unhappy first marriage. I was working really hard at work, long hours. I did not handle it well at all. I was doing recreational cocaine that just got more and more…. I take total responsibility for my stupidity.
Kopell You see this absolutely stunning young kid with these perfect blue eyes, the strawberry blond hair, and then she’s off in a corner sniffing and I said, ”Oh, my God.” And she said in a happy way, ”A little reward for a good day’s work.” Uh-oh. Uh-oh.
Gordon Farr When you got that call at 6:30 a.m. that Lauren called and her car doesn’t start or she’s stuck in the shower, you knew there was a major problem.
Tewes I was starting to embarrass myself publicly. I did something with my security system in my house — I was hallucinating that somebody had painted the leaves on my tree. So I called the security [company] and said, ”I think maybe the special-effects guys did something here.” It was just ridiculous…. I just put it down one day. I had to stop…[but] it was too little, too late. I had already damaged the trust of the people I was working for.
During contract renegotiations for season 8, Tewes says the producers offered her a pay cut.
Tewes I decided I was responsible for costing them a lot of money and I really messed up, so I said, ”I will accept that as a punishment.” Then I got a call: ”They decided not to pick up your contract.” Then it was in the tabloids that I’d asked for a million dollars.
Tewes was replaced by Pat Klous — a.k.a. Julie’s sister, Judy McCoy — who tried to make the best of an awkward situation. (”It’s hard to break into a group,” Klous says.) Meanwhile, Tewes struggled to find work.
Tewes I was blacklisted. Years later people say, ”We couldn’t hire you then. The word was out on you.” I would go on interviews and they would make fun of me. I was punished.
VII: The Long Wave Goodbye
As ratings began to sink in the mid-’80s, the producers tried to reinvigorate the show, tapping Ted McGinley as photographer Ace (”He was a junior Bob Redford in his day,” recalls Cramer) and introducing the singing, dancing Love Boat Mermaids (Look! Teri Hatcher!). But by 1986, Love Boat seemed to be nearing its final voyage.
Lange One day I went back to craft service. No fruits, no vegetables, no dip — a can of Cheez Whiz and Ritz crackers. I said, ”Well, we’re out of here. Let me pack my s– up.”
MacLeod I think we could’ve gone many more years.
The Love Boat series concluded in May 1986 after 217 telecasts. Three 2-hour specials aired the next season, though without Grandy; he’d departed to run for Congress.
Kopell Fred is a Harvard graduate magna cum laude — he was overqualified for playing Gopher.
Grandy It wasn’t that I was out of love with Love Boat. I just became much more passionate about politics and public service.
Surprisingly, Tewes returned for these specials.
Tewes I did it for the money, and to try to get some closure on it. It had been two of the hardest years of my life. But I’m a much stronger person because of it, and a kinder person.
Another TV movie surfaced in 1990, and the cast reunited on a 1998 episode of Love Boat: The Next Wave, UPN’s unsuccessful franchise relaunch. To this day, the series — which will be released on DVD next spring — endures as a touchstone of pure escapist fun.
Tori Spelling One of my dad’s dreams that never got fulfilled [Aaron Spelling died in 2006] is he desperately wanted to do a Love Boat feature. He’d tell me about that every year. First he’d be like, ”I’m thinking about Jim Carrey.” Then he’d be like, ”Wait, we’re going to have a young captain and it’s going to be Ben Stiller.” It would’ve been awesome.
MacLeod I went to my cleaners. There was a new girl. And she said, ”Man, aren’t you the captain?” I said, ”Well, I used to be.” She said, ”You’ve got to tell somebody to put that show back on.” I said, ”Why?” And she said, ”That show used to give me something to dream about. Nothing on television gives me anything to dream about.” I think that’s exactly what made the show successful.
Kopell I can get a good table in any restaurant in any country in the world.