Gavin MacLeod: Comic Actor (Mary Tyler Moore Show, Love Boat) Dies at 90

Most viewers know actor Gavin MacLeod, who died yesterday at the age of 90, for his popular TV shows, as co-star of Ernest Borgnine on McHale’s Navy (1962–1964) playing Joseph “Happy” Haines, or as Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977).

He achieved his greatest success on ABC’s The Love Boat (1977–1986), in which he was well cast as the amiable ship’s captain, Merrill Stubing, a role that garnered him three Golden Globe nominations.

However, Macleod was not an overnight success, and prior to becoming a household name, he had appeared on stage and in many movies in bit or small parts.

MacLeod was born in 1931 as Allan George See in Mount Kisco, New York to middle class family; his mother worked for Reader’s Digest, and his father (who was part Chippewa) an electrician. He grew up in Pleasantville, and studied acting at Ithaca College, from which he graduated in 1952 with a B.A,

After serving in the Air Force, he moved to New York and worked at Radio City Music Hall while seeking acting jobs. The first step was changing his name, drawing “Gavin” from a physically disabled victim in a TV drama he liked, and “MacLeod” from his drama coach, Beatrice MacLeod.  He later explained his motive: “I felt as if my name was getting in the way of my success, it just wasn’t strong enough, too confusing.”

Early one, he was a youngster who had gone bald at age 18, thus forced to wearing hairpieces in his work. But being bald had advantages too, as he recalled, “it made me a natural to play pimps, perverts, woman beaters and child molesters.”

MacLeod made his television debut in 1957 on The Walter Winchell File at the age of 26. His first movie appearance was a small uncredited role in The True Story of Lynn Stuart in 1958.  That same year, he landed a credited role in I Want to Live!, a prison drama starring Susan Hayward in Oscar winning performance. 

He was soon noticed by Blake Edwards, who in 1958 cast him in the pilot episode of his NBC series Peter Gunn, in two guest roles on the Edwards CBS series Mr. Lucky in 1959, and as a nervous harried navy yeoman in Operation Petticoat, with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

Operation Petticoat proved to be a breakout role, making him a favorite actor of Edwards, who went on to cast him in two other comedies, High Time, with Bing Crosby, and The Party with Peter Sellers.

In December 1961, he landed a guest role on The Dick Van Dyke Show as Mel’s cousin Maxwell Cooley, a wholesale jeweler, affording him the first time to working with Mary Tyler Moore.

His first regular television role began in 1962 as Joseph “Happy” Haines on McHale’s Navy, a role he left after two seasons to appear in the 1965 movie, The Sand Pebbles, with Steve McQueen, who was a friend.

He then played opposite Anthony Franciosa in A Man Called Gannon (1968), with Christopher George in The Thousand Plane Raid, and opposite Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas in the acclaimed war picture, Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

MacLeod’s breakout role as Murray Slaughter on CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show won him lasting fame and two Golden Globe nominations. 

His starring role as Captain Stubing on The Love Boat, his next TV series was broadcast in 90 countries, between 1977 and 1986 (9 seasons), and earned him three Golden Globe nominations.

The show was created by the real-life cruise director Jeraldine Saunders, but the inside joke was that MacLeod himself had never been on a cruise ship before. The show was shot mostly on soundstages, with about six weeks a year filming on ships.

Macleod participated actively in writing his part: “The original concept of the character was for him to be standoffish. In the pilot, the regulars are waiting for the new captain to show up, and they are frightened of his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, with no heart. But then I realized that if you want to have a series and be accepted week after week, likability is very important. So my captain became more like what I think I am, paternal and concerned, and official when he needed to be.”

MacLeod became the global ambassador for Princess Cruises in 1986, playing a role in ceremonies that launched many of the line’s new ships. In 2011, MacLeod celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess in Los Angeles. His friends and family presented him a special gift, a 5 ft. long, 3D replica in cake of Pacific Princess, the original Love Boat.

MacLeod appeared on the special for Betty White’s 90th birthday on January 17, 2012. He then reunited with White in 2013 to make “Safety Old School Style,” an in-flight safety video for Air New Zealand, which was viewed two million times on YouTube within the first year.

MacLeod married his second wife, Patti, in 1974, but the couple divorced in 1982. Patti then spent years in therapy on the West and East coasts. Then one day, she received a call from Patti Lewis, Jerry Lewis’ first wife, inviting her to a Christian prayer group. MacLeod later said, “From that day on, I started to think about her. Something told me to call Patti. I went back to see her and things haven’t been the same since.” 

Their 1985 remarriage would last until his death. As Evangelical Protestants, the couple credited their faith for bringing them back together. MacLeod loved to discuss his conversion to Christianity at sites like The Rock Church in Anaheim. He and Patti wrote about the struggles with divorce and alcoholism in Back on Course: The Remarkable Story of a Divorce That Ended in Remarriage.

In 2013, MacLeod published his own memoir, This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life. He related candidly his life as a struggling actor in Hollywood, his lifelong friends, his bout with alcoholism, his divorce, and above all, his journey through faith and Christianity.

In October 2013, MacLeod appeared on the Today Show to promote his new book, and his visit prompted a special set change in his honor. The book tour continued throughout 2014, in New York, Los Angeles, Florida, and other places.

Always the optimist, he once noted “All my living has been based on what other people have written. And now I hope that my writing can help others to know how I overcame and never gave up.”