Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oh, Captain, My Captain: Gavin MacLeod’s Top TV Moments


“Veteran supporting actor…”


These were the first three words to the obituary for Gavin MacLeod that ran in most newspapers on the day of his passing. 


Intended or not there’s a dismissive quality to that characterization, one last reminder of the hierarchy in show business that separates Hollywood royalty from mere working actors.


But what “supporting” removes in status is restored by “veteran.” For nearly 20 years he was a welcome presence in our Saturday night TV viewing, first as news writer Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then as Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat. Around those credits are dozens more ranging from 1958 to 2014. Gavin MacLeod was as familiar a face as any in the classic TV era, and far beyond through the endless reruns that are still part of our lives. It is that longevity that pulls at us most as we celebrate his life and mourn his loss. It’s also a wonderful legacy to leave behind.


Here are just some of his many memorable TV moments.


The Walter Winchell File (1958)

MacLeod has mentioned in interviews that his first appearance on television was as an extra in the religious program Lamp Unto My Feet. But according to IMDB he made his TV debut in this anthology crime series in a story called “Act of Folly,” as a petty crook that catches the eye of a woman in the midst of marital troubles.


Peter Gunn (1958)

McLeod appears in the first episode of this famed detective series as a mob boss trying to extort money from Mother’s Café. For a guy who usually projected everyman decency, he played a surprising number of scoundrels in his early career. Here he shows a real gift for soft-spoken intimidation.


The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961)

If you look up “obsequious” in the dictionary you could see a picture of Mel Cooley’s cousin, the jewelry salesman played by Gavin MacLeod in the episode “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace.” He is bald in most of his TV roles, which here puts him in the firing line for some of Buddy’s baldy jokes.


McHale’s Navy (1962)

“I had, like, two lines a week,” he recalled of his time as Happy Haines in his interview with the Archive of American Television.  But the show was a hit and such regular appearances are how an audience starts putting a name with a face and (hopefully) a personality that they look forward to seeing every week. 


Hawaii Five O (1968)

Of all MacLeod’s many criminal roles, none were sleazier than his portrayal of a drug dealer known as “Big Chicken.” Whereas some of his other villains had a comic element to them, or were just one-note henchmen, here he is able to create a full-fledged and genuinely despicable character – one that viewers clearly noticed as well. After getting the “Book ‘em, Dano” treatment in “And They Planted Daisies On His Coffin,” MacLeod reprised the role with Big Chicken now behind bars in “The Box” (1969).


Hogan’s Heroes (1969)

Gavin MacLeod guest starred in four episodes as four different Nazi officers. 



“The Witness” was the best of these appearances, as his General von Rauscher is accompanied by Marya (Nita Talbot), who always spices things up around Stalag 13.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970)

It’s not completely surprising that Gavin MacLeod never won an Emmy for his role, as he was always surrounded by more outsized personalities among one of TV’s best ever ensembles. But the fact that he was never even nominated seems impossible to believe. What would the WJM newsroom scenes be without Murray’s put-downs of Ted and Sue Ann, and his unrequited love for Mary? 



A Murray-centric episode is not like a Carol episode of The Bob Newhart Show, where there’s chance it will still be good but the odds are not as high. “We Closed in Minneapolis,” “The Slaughter Affair” and “Murray in Love” are all standout shows. Plus, he gets most of the best punch lines in “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”


One more thing about Murray: he’s not the character viewers identify with if they watched the show in their teens or 20s. Back then we had dreams like Mary to be out on our own, hoping we too were going to make it after all. But in middle age we may find our lives wound up more like Murray’s – working at a job we’re good at, always aspiring for something greater, but perhaps not having the luck or talent to reach those heights. And eventually we make peace with that – and take comfort that at least we’re not Ted.


The Love Boat (1977)

How could Gavin MacLeod be eulogized as a supporting actor when he was top-billed on The Love Boat for an impressive 11-season run? 


Because viewers didn’t really tune in to watch the captain of the Pacific Princess – they wanted to see which guest stars would be sailing each week. So even as the star of the show, MacLeod and his crew were there to facilitate, fill in the transitions, provide exposition when necessary, and occasionally play a few substantive scenes. When he got one he nailed it, of course, whether it was a reference to the Captain’s status as a recovering alcoholic, or his reconnecting with daughter Vicki (who doesn’t deserve much of the derision her character gets from some fans). 



As one viewer observed, there were valuable lessons slipped into a lot of Love Boat stories, but they were wrapped in cotton candy.  That’s a nice turn of phrase that even a writer like Murray Slaughter would appreciate.


  1. Just off the top of my head I want to add Gavin MacLeod's appearances on Perry Mason, particularly "TCOT the Grumbling Grandfather" and "TCOT the Grinning Gorilla".
    I'll lean to the latter because of MacLeod's on-screen partnership with Victor Buono - the precise nature of which would require a Spoiler Warning (and I've already said too much ...).

  2. Well, this was a very kind read and fine tribute to Gavin. I didn't even know of his passing until late last night, was watching a small collection of him singing with Marie Osmond on Youtube, and wondered why someone went to the trouble. It seems unfair, his never winning an Emmy for his work on Mary. This is going to sound weird, but I didn't appreciate his acting chops until the premiere of Love Boat. He seemed as much a fit-in on the Pacific Princess as he did in the WJM newsroom. I guess that's called good acting! RIP Gavin.