It was a combination of things. The shiny bald head, the Cheshire grin, the fact that he didn't look particularly great in those glistening white shorts they all made Capt. Merrill Stubing seem like a soothing cherub in knee socks, the ideal guy for leading about 28 million TV viewers on a weekly cruise aboard The Love Boat. From 1977 to 1986, the Pacific Princess might not have sailed so smoothly and made thousands of passengers into Valentines had it not been for the guidance of actor Gavin MacLeod.
''I remember TV critics saying 'How could you do it?''' says MacLeod of his leap from Murray, Mary Richards' wisecracking colleague on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to the ever-cheerful captain. ''But I loved it. I said: 'This is gonna take people away from the everyday burdens of life. It'll give them something to dream about.''' (They're still dreaming: Love Boat airs in syndication on E! and the Nostalgia Television cable network and in 22 countries.)
It was a sharp career turn for MacLeod, a stage actor who had played mostly bad guys for 13 years on TV and film. ''I never played a good guy with a bald head until Murray,'' says MacLeod, now 65. But during MTM's seven-year run, MacLeod proved his ability to endear. ''Stubing was the first TV hero that was a recovering alcoholic and had an illegitimate daughter. But Gavin made him lovable,'' says Douglas S. Cramer, the show's executive producer. ''People all over the world would come up to him and hug him like he was Santa Claus.''
Since retiring his sea legs, MacLeod has been working regularly: He's a spokesperson for Princess Cruises (once billed as ''The Love Boat''); he and wife Patti (they divorced in 1982 and remarried in 1985) host Back on Course, a Christian talk show, on the Trinity Broadcasting Network; and they tour the country performing in regional theater.
This year is the first time since their reunion that the MacLeods didn't celebrate Valentine's Day on Princess' annual Love Boat National Holiday Cruise. But in May he'll be in Florida for the cruise line's 20th Anniversary Love Boat celebration, where the six original cast members (MacLeod, Ted Lange, Fred Grandy, Lauren Tewes, Bernie Kopell, and Jill Whelan) will christen a new ship. Meanwhile, MacLeod is excited about his several plays lined up for 1997, including a new musical, Grossinger's, scheduled to open in Fort Worth in March. ''Doing theater is like having a love affair with people,'' he explains, sounding very much like an expert on the subject.