Gavin MacLeod on 'MTM,' 'Love Boat' and a 'great ride'

Story highlights

  • Gavin MacLeod has new memoir, "This Is Your Captain Speaking"
  • MacLeod spent years as character actor before he found TV stardom
  • He was originally supposed to play Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
  • "Love Boat's" Capt. Stubing was originally tougher; character later softened
Ask Gavin MacLeod about virtually anybody, and he'll have something nice to say.
Cary Grant? "To look like him for 10 minutes." Gregory Peck? "What a gentleman." Frank Sinatra? "One of the great moments of my life, getting to shake that man's hand."
Except Bette Davis.
Oh, MacLeod's not angry. But in his new memoir, "This Is Your Captain Speaking" (written with Mark Dagostino and out Tuesday ), he has an amusing story about inviting Davis to dinner during the height of his early '80s "Love Boat" fame. The Hollywood grande dame proved to be less than a gracious guest.
Davis argued with another guest, upset MacLeod's wife and, afterward, insulted her hosts in the newspaper.
But even with Davis, MacLeod looks on the sunny side. "We got a good story and a good laugh out of it," he writes in the book.
MacLeod is a happy guy.
Gavin MacLeod was on two long-running shows and has played a number of character roles in films and TV.
His enthusiasm and generous spirit run through his new memoir like bright threads. In the midst of recollections about his early stage career, his years as a character actor in countless TV shows and his well-known turns on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Love Boat," he'll slow down the recollections to pay tribute to former co-stars and little-known colleagues with a "Wow!" and "Can you imagine?"
He drops exclamation points frequently, still stunned that his life has worked out so well.
"It's been a great, great ride," MacLeod, 82, said in a phone interview.
Sure, the ride's had a few bumps for MacLeod, born Allan See in Westchester County, New York. He lost his father when he was 13. He suffered through years of alcoholism, which led to the end of his first marriage -- a tale he tells without self-pity in the book.
"I was ugly when I drank," he writes. "The fighting was miserable, and very much my fault."
Until finally breaking through in his late 30s as "MTM's" even-keeled newswriter Murray Slaughter, he had a steady but unexceptional career as a character actor. He got his start on stage in the drama "A Hatful of Rain" and later attracted notice in Los Angeles for playing a drug dealer in a play called "The Connection," which led to roles as villains in such shows as "Hawaii Five-O."
It was Murray -- and then Capt. Merrill Stubing on "The Love Boat," through which he became a spokesman for Princess Cruises -- that established MacLeod's on-screen good-guy bona fides. He has found strength in his Christian faith and in his long marriage to his wife, Patti.
CNN spoke to MacLeod by phone from his home in Southern California. The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview:
CNN: Acting can be a very challenging business. How do you stay upbeat?
Gavin MacLeod: You get turned down more than you get accepted, so you get used to that negativity. It's just part of the life. A lot of hope goes into being an actor, especially when you're young, and especially not having any hair.
CNN: Tell me about that.
MacLeod: Being bald at a young age turned out to be an asset for me. When I came out to Hollywood in 1957, I started doing shows at Desilu. I'd do two shows in a week. I'd do one with my hair on, then take my hair off, put on a suit and have another little dialogue change and be the head of a mob. I got a lot of training that way because of being bald.
CNN: You played a lot of heavies and small character roles until "Mary Tyler Moore."
MacLeod: I really did. What surprises me is how people know about your career who you've never met. I was on (a cruise) one time, and one guy asked, "How is Maisie?" and I said, "Who is Maisie?" and he said, "In 'Operation Petticoat,' the tattoo on your chest of the naked girl." You become a part of people's lives in ways you'll never know.
CNN: Did you feel like taking "MTM" was a risk?
MacLeod (far right) reunited with the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" cast in 2004.
MacLeod: Not at all. I had worked with Mary before, and she and (producer) Grant (Tinker), her husband, had seen me do a lot of plays on the West Coast. I knew her a little bit from working with her on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And the script was so good.
CNN: They wanted you for Lou Grant. (Ed Asner eventually played the role.)
MacLeod: Lou Grant was wonderful, but I wouldn't believe myself in that role. But Murray, I thought I could do something with him.
That's something I tell actors when I talk to them. If you have an instinct about something, follow that instinct. If I didn't risk saying (to the producers), "I really like Murray Slaughter. I think I can do something with it." ... They had to readjust their thinking, because he wasn't the lead role. And that was the beginning of a wonderful seven-year relationship.
CNN: You reveled in the character of Murray Slaughter, but Ted Knight wrestled with the character of Ted Baxter. People confused the actor with the fake anchorman.
MacLeod: Well, his character was so vivid. He was so funny. Grant Tinker used to come up in the audience, even by himself, to watch rehearsals, and roar at Ted.
(The) concept was based on a lot of different people. There was a big guy named George Putnam. He was the biggest newscaster on the West Coast. I did a Christmas parade, and he was one of the guests. He was riding on a horse, and I was in a car, and he says, "GAVIN! I'M THE REAL TED BAXTER!" And he was so proud of it.
(But) Ted had that image, and it wore on him. Finally he did get to have "Too Close for Comfort" and "The Ted Knight Show."
CNN: It must be tough. You've had such indelible roles that people may find it hard to think of you as something besides Murray or Capt. Stubing.
MacLeod: It becomes a part of people's lives. The thing about Stubing, I tried to make him as likable as I could. He was written differently -- he was written as a stern person. But we realized if you're going to have a series that's going to run, people don't want to see that kind of figure week after week. So we started to change him and tap into me more. That's how he became the caring man, the father figure.
CNN: "Mary" was beloved by critics. Not so for "The Love Boat."
MacLeod: The critics hated our show. But I remember when we went to church one Sunday. A lady stopped me, and said, "Aren't you the captain?" I say, "Yes." She says, "I love the messages you give us, because they're covered with cotton candy." What a great phrase that is. And writing on that level is very hard to do.
CNN: What lessons do you hope people draw from the book?
MacLeod: Never give up. Don't be afraid to risk. And if you have a dream, go for it. Don't let anybody step on your dream. You have one life; you want to make the most of it.