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 fall, 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.
FRED GRANDY: I was considered for the first pilot but didn’t even get to audition because I had made another pilot and was not eligible. It was a Benji rip-off. I was the affable young grade school teacher that takes in the dog and gets the girl. Actually, the dog got the girl first and then I did, probably one of the reasons it never became a series.
TED 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.
BERNIE 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 movie fared even better, the producers continued to tinker with the casting. Then-ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman pushed for Gavin MacLeod — who was fresh off The Mary Tyler Moore Show — to play the stern yet compassionate Captain Stubing.
GAVIN 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….”
FRED SILVERMAN: I thought he had great appeal. He was very likable on Mary Tyler Moore, but he basically played the same beats over and over. This gave him an opportunity to stretch as an actor.
MACLEOD: They had made the pilot twice before with handsome captains with hair. Silverman said, ”Let’s go in the opposite direction. Go with the dumpy little Irishman with no hair, and maybe they’ll buy it.”
The night before shooting began on the Queen Mary in San Pedro, Calif., the role of cheery cruise director Julie McCoy was filled by Hollywood newcomer Cynthia Lauren Tewes.
MACLEOD: I tested with 11, 12 actresses that could’ve played Julie. It wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted a girl who exemplified today.
DOUG CRAMER, executive producer: [Tewes] came into the office and meshed with everybody, and off we went.
CYNTHIA LAUREN TEWES: I had to borrow money to get a new tire, because my ‘62 Volkswagen Bug was not going to get to San Pedro…. That first day, standing there in the little outfit, and 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.
LANGE: You just loved her. She beamed.
The third movie also nabbed nice numbers. ”Wherever we put [Love Boat], it didn’t make any difference — we couldn’t kill it with a stick,” says then-ABC movies chief Brandon Stoddard. Not all of the network’s execs were convinced of its series potential (like they were of another Spelling comedy, The San Pedro Beach Bums), so Silverman delicately nudged his overlords to slip Love Boat into the 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 in Los Angeles 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.”
KOPELL: It was poopoo’d. People resented it. Maybe because it just looked so easy.
LYNNE FARR, producer: It was depressing. I couldn’t get writers to come work for me, for Pete’s sake…. I was embarrassed because the critics hated it. People would say, ”What are you working on?” I’d say, [quietly] ”Uhhhhh, Love Boat?”
SILVERMAN: It was formula writing, but it was what the audience wanted at that time. It was feel-good television…. There was a laugh track that always bothered the hell out of me, but it was a convention of the day — even in the middle of the China Sea.
LANGE: I think it took seven years before they even said I was there. If you go back and read the reviews, you’ll see I’m never, ever mentioned…. My thing was, ”Well, how come they didn’t say I was s—? I want to be told I’m s— too! I’m with those guys!”
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.”
NEXT PAGE: ” ‘Cuchi-cuchi’ showed me the way to the bank. That bulls— make me rich.”