Gavin MacLeod — you have to love him

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Jorie Parr

Gavin MacLeod also wears a ball cap in the CV Rep play Happy Hour. The actor collects Tommy Bahama tropical shirts.
Photo by Gordon Parr

He was 4 years old, the lead in a kindergarten play, when he first heard that sound: CLAPPING. Even winning the charming child contest in the New York Daily Mirror a little earlier had not prepared the golden-curled tot for that moment. “I want more,” he determined.

The thrill of connection with an audience has stayed with him his whole long life. Never mind that his major triumphs have been on television, theater remains his favorite medium.

And yes, the captain of the fabled “Love Boat” is coming to a theater near you. Gavin MacLeod appears in the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s first world premiere production of a full-length play, Happy Hour, by George Eastman, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 22. Termed a “cantankerous jokester,” MacLeod, as the father, shares the stage with an L.A.-based actor John Hawkinson as the son. The Beacon chatted with MacLeod at the CV Rep location at the Atrium in Rancho Mirage. 

To begin with, he was born Allan See in 1931 in upstate New York. The MacLeod would come later as a tribute to an instructor, and Gavin seemed like an interesting name to go with it. He endured a classic Depression childhood, wherein the highlight of the week was a Sunday drive and a hot dog.

A trademark bald pate

Always the budding thespian, he won a scholarship to Ithaca College. But a funny thing happened on his way to an acting career. He went bald. At like 18.

MacLeod shrugs. “Jessica Tandy said, ‘Take your liability and make it an asset.’”

Not just another juvenile type, his shiny pate gave him a leg up for villain casting. Some were downright heinous, like the drug dealer in Hatful of Rain. And then there was his role on the cool detective series, “Peter Gunn,” (1958-61). “I was the first Ivy League heavy on TV. I played squash.”

Even when he portrayed really bad guys, viewers couldn’t help but kind of like him. It’s a gift that pointed the way to his tremendous success on “Love Boat.”

But his darkest phase was with “McHale’s Navy.” He was actually used as a prop — told to stand in front of a building to block it. His great friend Ted Knight told him, “You’re a glorified extra.” The experience drove MacLeod to drink, and it took a while to snap out of that.

The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” was another story. As Murray the mench, MacLeod used the typewriter for plot punctuation — loudly zinging the carriage for emphasis. MacLeod so admired Mary Tyler Moore, he adopted her leadership style when he headed the “Love Boat” cast.

Aboard the Love Boat

“Everybody laughed” at producer Aaron Spelling’s idea of an ocean liner with a sappy load of guests. “My agent said, ‘I think it sucks’.”

But MacLeod’s wife Patti said “Gavin, this can be a hit. You should do it.” And the rest is television history.

Two other actors — with hair — had given it a go, but with MacLeod, the ship sailed. Literally. Actual cruises were part of the perks. He remembers a happy episode with Shelley Winters on a gondola in Venice. Andy Warhol’s improbable white wig fascinated him. When iconic stars like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman appeared “we were in actor’s heaven.”

By the time the program concluded, after nearly a decade, it had given birth to an industry: cruising was a new vacation option. And MacLeod retains the position of ambassador for Princess Cruises. They think so much of him they’re helping underwrite Happy Hour.

Now a Rancho Mirage resident full time — “heat doesn’t bother me” — MacLeod says. “We’ve always had a place here,” — even when he was also honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades. He and Patti have seven adult children between them, four from his previous marriage, three from hers.

The pair is actively involved in valley life. For instance, MacLeod will present their friend, his wife on “Mary Tyler Moore,” sweet-voiced Joyce Bulifant, with a “Desert Diva” award on Nov. 10. The occasion is the local Woman in Film and Television Broken Glass Awards event.

Memorizing lines for an octogenarian can’t be easy. MacLeod puts in extra hours to get it right. But as for creativity, he’s on top form. And the play is special. Like many, he relates to it. “I had to put my mother in a home,” he says quietly.

High on CV Rep, MacLeod maintains “This group is only starting [toward]  national recognition. I think Ron’s (artistic director Celona) dream is coming true.” Take it from one whose own dreams have come true.

Ticket prices range from $43 to $58. Call (760) 296-2966 or see http://cvrep.org/single-play-tickets to buy tickets.