Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat.
The main cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: (clockwise from top left) Gavin MacLeod as Murray Slaughter, Ed Asner as Lou Grant, Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin, Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens.
The main cast of The Love Boat: Gavin MacLeod as Captain Merrill Stubing (center) with (clockwise from top left) Ted Lange as bartender Isaac Washington, Bernie Kopell as Dr. Adam Bricker, Lauren Tewes as cruise director Julie McCoy, Fred Grandy as Purser Burl "Gopher" Smith.
Joyce Bulifant, who played Marie Slaughter, wife of MacLeod's Murray Slaughter, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He could have been Lou Grant, but Gavin MacLeod saw promise in a smaller part that he knew he could make his own. And that he did, infusing The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Murray Slaughter, a supporting role, with warmth and charm. Later, of course, he stepped into the spotlight and television history as Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. February 28 would have been MacLeod's ninety-first birthday. Here, Emmys.com pays tribute to the beloved actor, who died on May 29, 2021.
Long before he became Murray, MacLeod first performed with Mary Tyler Moore as a guest-star on CBS's hit The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which she played homemaker Laura Petrie. In 1961, in a first-season episode entitled "Empress Carlotta's Necklace," MacLeod portrayed Maxwell Cooley, a relative to the hairless Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon). As MacLeod told me in 2018, "I was Richard Deacon's cousin because I had a bald head, too.
"When I was just starting out as an actor, I would tell myself things like, 'They don't write parts for bald people.' I mean, there were so many opportunities for me to throw in the towel. But I never did. I never gave up. And I was always grateful for the roles I played."
Including Maxwell Cooley. "I was in actor's heaven doing that show," continued MacLeod, who credited show creator Carl Reiner for casting him in the "Necklace" episode. "Carl was one of my heroes. I just think he was one of the most wonderful human beings God ever created."
MacLeod's recollection of working with Moore on both shows was equally bright. "I just remember how up she was," he said. "She was always so happy and joyful, just like Laura Petrie. Mary was just number one in my book. You couldn't wait to get to work because she was so wonderful to work with."
So how — and why — did MacLeod pass on playing Lou Grant? When show creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns were casting the workplace comedy, they envisioned MacLeod for the more central role of news director and newsroom boss.
He had just completed a four-month shoot in Yugoslavia on the 1970 comedy feature Kelly's Heroes, which starred, among others, Clint Eastwood and Carroll O'Connor (shortly before he landed All in the Family). MacLeod recalled that he was rehearsing a stage production of Carousel one day when his agent phoned to say, "Mary Tyler Moore is doing a pilot and they want to see you."
He received two scripts: the pilot and an episode featuring Ida Morgenstern, mother to Valerie Harper's Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary Richards' best friend). He'd heard that Maureen Stapleton was up for the role of Rhoda's mom. He told Brooks and Burns, "I could see Maureen in the part, but I think Nancy Walker would be a better fit."
They asked, "Who's Nancy Walker?"
"She's one of the biggest comedy talents of all time," he replied. When Walker, who was then directing Noel Coward's Fallen Angels onstage in New York City, learned what he'd done, she and her husband (acting coach David Craig), took MacLeod and his wife, Patti Kendig, to dinner. But MacLeod would take no credit, saying only, "Nancy was responsible for Nancy getting the role because she was so brilliant."
His casting ideas didn't stop at Ida. He recalled, "I read for Lou, and I thought the part was terrific and that the writing was wonderful. That famous phrase of Lou's, 'I hate spunk,' was in the pilot. And, I mean, come on — that's a gorgeous line! As an actor, you wait your whole life to say a line like that."
But he felt compelled to play Murray instead. "I wouldn't believe myself being Mary's boss," he said. "So, on my way out of the audition, as I had my hand on the door, I turned around and said, 'You know, I've enjoyed this experience so much, meeting young people and all. But I really like the part of Murray.' And Jim said, 'You like Murray? He's just a supporting character.'
"I don't care," MacLeod said. "I think maybe I can do something with the role."
So they invited him to read for Murray. "I got some good laughs, and we said our goodbyes," MacLeod recalled, "and I left." On his way out, he noticed Ed Asner "pacing back and forth" out in the hallway. The two men had not yet met.
That day, MacLeod went back to the theater and his rehearsals for Carousel. About three hours later, his agent showed up and waved him offstage to report, "They want you to be in the Mary Tyler Moore pilot."
MacLeod wondered which role they were offering. The agent said, "I don't know. Is there a guy named Murray in it?"
"There sure is," MacLeod recalls replying. "And that was the beginning of my time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Of course, Ed Asner became legendary — and won three Emmy Awards — as tender-hearted curmudgeon Lou Grant. But MacLeod did in fact "do something with the role," playing a voice of reason and perennial straight man in a chaotic newsroom populated by oversized personalities.
Seven years and twenty-nine Emmy Awards later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show completed its celebrated run in CBS's Saturday-night lineup. It's no coincidence that MacLeod was on two of TV's most beloved Saturday staples. Former CBS programmer Fred Silverman had by then joined ABC to improve its prime-time fortunes, and he wanted to lure a star from Moore to a new ABC show in the same timeslot. CBS had a similar idea, of course, spinning off three Moore stars into their own shows — Valerie Harper in Rhoda, Cloris Leachman in Phyllis and Asner in Lou Grant. In fact, Ted Knight, who had long played MacLeod's newsroom foil Ted Baxter, was initially considered for the captain's chair. He later appeared on six episodes as a rival captain.
So when The Love Boat launched on ABC in 1977, it was MacLeod who evolved from congenial ensemble player Murray Slaughter into Captain Merrill Stubing, playing a lead at last. His crew included Ted Lange as head bartender Isaac Washington, Bernie Kopell as Dr. "Doc" Adam Bricker, Fred Grandy as Ship's Purser Burl "Gopher" Smith, Lauren Tewes as cruise director Julie McCoy and Jill Whelan as Vicky Stubing, the captain's daughter.
"This show is going to be a hit," is what Lange recalled MacLeod telling him and the rest of the cast during the first week of filming. "This show will make people feel good."
"Gavin saw right away what we couldn't see," Lange told me in a conversation about MacLeod. "And he was enthusiastic about being there. Whereas we all wanted to play more drama-oriented roles, he told us, 'This show has love and romance, and everything turns out all right in the end.' And we were like, 'But that's not reality!' And he said, 'Don't you worry. You don't know it now, but you watch. When this show gets on the air, it's going to explode!' And he was 100 percent right."
Lange also recalled how differently Captain Stubing was initially envisioned by the show's producers. Aaron Spelling and Douglas S. Cramer had overseen Love, American Style, a precursor of sorts to Boat that aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974. "They tried to make the captain a little more gruff," Lange said. "But Gavin wasn't the gruff type. He was a charming guy. He told them, 'You guys don't need to get comedy out of me being a badass. You don't need a solid figure where he puts everybody down. That's not necessarily how a captain runs his ship."
Based on the kinds of characters MacLeod had played before being cast as Murray, Spelling and Goldberg had assumed he'd bring a similar portrayal to The Love Boat. Lange explained, "Gav played all those villains and drug-pushers on shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Perry Mason. And they were looking for him to do the same kind of thing... just as [the producers] had first pictured him as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
In fact, MacLeod had been a journeyman actor before he became Murray, appearing in a few features and on multiple series each year, ranging from McHale's Navy (seventy-three episodes) to one-offs on such diverse fare as Steve Canyon, Manhunt, The Munsters, Combat! and Ironside.
"But then, about the second year of The Love Boat," Lange continued, "when they kept trying to write the captain as more of an authoritative figure, Gavin's heart really wasn't in it. So the producers eventually changed their minds, and Captain Stubing became the captain that we all came to know and love. He was understanding with the crew, and he had words of wisdom. He could be charming and still be an authority figure. And when they brought in Jill to play his daughter, it was perfect. He had the balance of portraying a father and, actually, he was a father to the rest of us, too."
"Gavin knew what he was doing," Lange added. "There's a protocol to being a regular on a hit show, and he knew this. He noticed that Fred and I had a little bit of a swelled head. We were making money. We had steady employment. And we were getting a little full of ourselves because we were on a hit show. So he and Bernie took us aside and said, 'Look — this is our home. Guest stars are coming to our house and it is our job to make them feel comfortable, to see if they want tea or coffee, doughnuts or cookies. It is our job to approach the guest stars, shake their hands and say, 'Welcome to The Love Boat. Thank you for doing our show.'"
"He was just a gem of a guy," Lange concluded.
The Love Boat ran for nine seasons, from 1977 to 1986, followed by four special episodes and then the 1990 telefilm The Love Boat: A Valentine Voyage. In 1998, MacLeod and his crew made an appearance on the "Reunion" episode of a shortlived reboot called The Love Boat: The Next Wave. He returned to making guest appearances on TV shows as diverse as Oz, The King of Queens, JAG and That '70s Show, and in 2008 brought his born-again faith to a starring role in The Secrets of Jonathan Perry, an inspirational feature film. He was also active in regional and touring theater in the 1980s and '90s.
"Gavin was as clean as they came," Asner told me last year. "He never made a dirty slur or took advantage of anyone at any time. And he got along with everyone."
Even Ted Knight, who played Murray's sparring partner on Moore. In fact, according to Asner, MacLeod and Knight were best friends offscreen. "[Knight] was always cutting up so badly that he had Gavin laughing from dawn to dusk."
When MacLeod passed, Asner tweeted, "My heart is broken. Gavin was my brother, my partner in crime (and food) and my comic conspirator. I will see you in a bit Gavin. Tell the gang I will see them in a bit. Betty! It's just you and me now." Indeed, Asner passed away just a few months after writing that, on August 29, 2021, at age ninety-one. Betty White, who played Sue Ann Nivens on Moore, passed away four months later, on December 31 — just shy of her 100th birthday.
Strictly speaking though, Asner wasn't entirely correct. A number of less central actors from the show remain alive, including Joyce Bulifant. She portrayed Murray's wife, Marie Slaughter, on eleven episodes. Shortly before he passed away, they were developing a TV sitcom sequel titled Murray and Marie.
Speaking with me about MacLeod following his death, she said, "He was the most optimistic person I have ever met in my entire life. He could see the worst performance, the worst play, the worst film, and think it was wonderful. He was full and happy and yet, very concerned in the last part of his life. His wife, Patti, was not well. He was taking very good care of her and he was very concerned about her. But I've never been around anybody who made you feel that good about life.
"If the world were peopled with those like Gavin," Bulifant concluded, "it would be a much better place. Everybody would love everybody. Everybody would be happy. He was a remarkable man, and I'm going to miss his happy face."
Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again, a classic TV talk show streaming on Amazon Prime, is the author of several books about television including Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story, which was just released as a newly revised paperback.