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Neither critics nor production headaches could sink The Love Boat

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers The Love Boat, which ran for nine full seasons and 250 episodes between 1977 and 1986.


Aaron Spelling began his showbiz career as a studio bit player in the 1950s, portraying one-off characters like “Weed Pindle” on a first-season episode of Gunsmoke. Familiar with TV and movie sets, he started writing, and producing, and eventually booked a spot in the Guinness Book Of World Records as “Most Prolific TV Producer.” In the ’60s and ’70s, he spearheaded shows like The Mod Squad, Family, Starsky And Hutch, Hart To Hart, and Charlie’s Angels. At his peak, he was responsible for seven hours of programming on the ABC schedule. The running joke was that the network should change its name to Aaron’s Broadcast Company; The New Yorker had its own name for Spelling: “schlock merchant.”

Around the time of Charlie’s Angels, Spelling was asked why he didn’t make more thought-provoking television. He replied, “People have enough to worry about. I don’t think television has to preach so much. What’s wrong with sheer escapism entertainment… cotton candy for the mind?”


The Love Boat, one of Spelling’s biggest hits, might have appeared like cotton candy, but it was only silly on the surface. In truth, the show offered a higher degree of difficulty than most TV productions. In their book The Sweeps: Behind The Scenes In Network TV, authors Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth describe Love Boat as

a monumental exercise in controlled chaos, in which almost 15 tons of equipment, 300 crew members, numerous high-voltage guest stars, three interwoven plot lines, and the governments of numerous foreign countries had to regularly be controlled, organized, appeased, and made sense of week after week. Customs agents had to be paid off, lovers’ quarrels… patched up, guests stars flown in and out, and new locations constantly scouted. On top of that, each episode had three story lines: the “heart” story, the “tears” story, and the “laughs” story, all of which had to be somehow melded into a cohesive plot. And every show had to have an appeal to the three major age groups; a guest star like June Allyson would be hauled in for the older group, a Tom Selleck type would be brought in for the young adults, and somebody from a kids’ show, like Eight Is Enough, would be shoehorned in to the plot to attract the youngsters. To [the producers], doing Love Boat had seemed like waging a weekly World War III.


Spelling patterned his eventual hit after a previous one: ABC’s Love, American Style, an anthology series featuring weekly vignettes of sex and romance. Love Boat basically moved these random players and their stories to the ocean, making them passengers aboard a giant cruise ship. The show’s combination of accessibility with romantic, escapist everyday elegance turned Love Boat into a ratings juggernaut on Saturday nights, where Starsky And Hutch had failed to correct a decade of ABC flops like Griff, Holmes And YoYo, and Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell.

Love Boat producer Doug Cramer had been a Love, American Style producer. He had also purchased the rights to The Love Boats, a risqué tell-all from former cruise director Jennifer Saunders (the Jacqueline Susann of cruise ships), who detailed all her many stories from her high life on the seas. Cramer made multiple Love Boat pilots for ABC (three of which aired as made-for-TV movies), and after a few middling efforts, eventually the show was able to pull together a cast that absolutely clicked: Get Smart alum Bernie Kopell as the ship’s doctor, future Republican congressman Fred Grandy as the assistant purser (the head purser was never spotted), and theater veteran Ted Lange as the outgoing bartender. Newcomer Lauren Tewes became cruise director (Spelling had just spotted her on a Starsky And Hutch episode), while The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Gavin MacLeod was hired as the ship’s captain.


Mary Tyler Moore had just ended, and MacLeod was looking forward to an onstage musical with Debbie Reynolds. Then his agent called with an offer for The Love Boat. MacLeod asked what his agent thought, and he replied, “I think it sucks. Do you want to read it?” But MacLeod remembers Spelling selling him on the emphasis on weekly happy endings and big guest stars. “All these things were pluses, pluses, pluses.”

In a 2013 interview on The View, Grandy recounted: “The critics hated it, said it would sink like the Titanic. Aaron knew that it would bond with all of you.” The New York Times called the show “dreadful porridge,” but Spelling turned out to be right: The Love Boat cracked the Nielsen Top 30 in 1977, debuting at No. 14, and stayed on the seas for nine years. ABC soon added an escapist anthology followup at 10 p.m., Fantasy Island, which made for an unbeatable lineup for the network for almost a decade.


In his autobiography, Spelling writes, “The appeal of Love Boat was enormous. It was a show for people who couldn’t afford to go on a cruise. Every week they felt they were going somewhere exotic by watching our show.” Many episodes were filmed on two real cruise ships, the Pacific Princess and the Island Princess, during their regular voyages from the Virgin Islands to Alaska. Paying passengers were delighted to take part in shooting, and cruises in which filming was planned were always booked solid in advance. But most of The Love Boat was filmed on a soundstage on the 20th Century Fox lot, which housed a swimming pool, corridors, cabins, dining room, and huge deck.


The Love Boat clinched its key guest-star demographic by offering free cruises to the actors, who were also invited to bring their families. Consequently, as early as its third episode, The Love Boat featured guest stars like Spelling favorites Kristy McNichol and Scott Baio; in another story, M*A*S*H*’s Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) is married to Soap’s Burt (Richard Mulligan) but runs into her ex—the former Mr. Mike Brady (Robert Reed)—onboard the Pacific Princess. The novelty of so many familiar faces bumping into each other was enough to draw viewers. Spelling remembers, “After the show was a hit, agents started calling us.”

To fill casting requirements for the older crowd, Spelling was glad to call on the stars of the silver screen from his days in front of the camera, including performers like Lana Turner, Luise Rainer, and Van Johnson. As Spelling described it, “These actors and actresses still had lots of talent, and I was happy to provide an outlet.” Hence the fourth-season episode in which midcentury stars like Troy Donahue and Farley Granger play two dads trying to fix up their kids (Little House On The Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson and Falcon Crest’s Lorenzo Lamas), winning over two generations at once.


Once it had viewers drawn in, The Love Boat got more ambitious, bookending seasons with two-parters featuring actual cruises. Dallas star Patrick Duffy remembered, “You called them ‘the big gigs.’ You could do a Love Boat and never leave 20th Century Fox Studios. Or you’d get the big prize and go on a trip. We flew to Fiji, got on the boat, and sailed from Fiji to Sydney. The work was absolutely easy. It required no efforts at all. You were basically there to have a good time. It was a whole cruise full of celebrity guest stars.” Later seasons saw more exotic locations like Australia and the Mediterranean. The Love Boat even went to China in 1983, one of the first American series to do so.


The Love Boat era peaked with the season-three kickoff, focusing on a wedding cruise in Alaska. No gratuitous bikini shots, just gorgeous icebergs and waterfalls, as well as a pre-NCIS Mark Harmon and a pre-Knots’ Landing’s Lisa Hartman as the bride and groom. Rounding out the cast: Lorne Greene as the grandfather of the bride, Donny Most as best man, and Woody Allen favorite Tony Roberts as a lost love of Julie’s. This was as great as The Love Boat ever got.

The show found a sweet spot in its first few years, prizing sentiment over silliness. In this period, The Love Boat’s storylines were either entertaining or relatable, sometimes both: In “Isaac’s Teacher,” Lange’s character is ashamed to tell his former teacher (silent film star Lillian Gish) that he’s “only” a bartender. In “Sounds Of Silence,” Sonny Bono plays a hard-rocking musician in Kiss-style makeup who falls for a deaf girl. The season-four premiere featured one of the show’s best standalone stories, in which cruise director Julie and assistant purser Gopher unexpectedly hook up. Nowadays, the Gopher-Julie relationship would be bloated into a will-they/won’t-they scenario, but “Friends And Lovers” handles it surprisingly well (and in under an hour), pairing the characters up at the goading of Gopher’s fraternity brother, played by a snidely villainous Tom Hanks. After some affectionate monologues and an aborted attempt at recapturing the spark of a staged moonlit kiss, the couple realizes that they’re better as friends.

To be on the safe side, some episodes stole outright from successful movies: Fans of the Cary Grant film Indiscreet, in which he falsely tells his lover Ingrid Bergman that he’s married to keep the romance alive, could spy a similar situation on a Love Boat cruise. A special crossover episode, “Love Boat Angels,” merged the show with Spelling’s other powerhouse, Charlie’s Angels. Down the line, the show added Jill Whelan as Vicki, Captain Stubing’s 12-year-old daughter by a previous relationship, ostensibly keeping the show’s youth appeal intact.


Unfortunately for The Love Boat, things eventually slid downhill. A later two-parter featuring Darren McGavin as a producer of a massive “Marriage-A-Thon” looked trashy in comparison to the classiness of the Alaskan cruise (although The Love Boat still offered travelogue-like narration as the ship journeyed through the Panama Canal, courtesy of Captain Stubing). A few years later, Gopher and Julie posed as lovers again—this time thwarting a college friend of Julie’s—in a farcical episode that lacked any of the subtlety of the previous one. Tewes was having her own troubles around this time (she was eventually the subject of a 1985 TV Guide cover story titled “Love Boat, Stardom, And Cocaine”), and had to be replaced at the end of season seven.


In addition to the replacing of one of its most popular cast members, The Love Boat’s other production headaches didn’t clear up with time. It was hard to keep the guest manifest full and even harder for the show to keep topping itself, leading to desperate late-season add-ons like the singing and dancing Love Boat Mermaids and an onboard casino. Perhaps every guest star who had wanted to take a cruise had already taken one—although some, like The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson, guested eight times, always as a different wife. One rare late-season highlight: A 1985 episode in which Andy Warhol plays himself, recognizing housewife Marion Ross as one of his former Factory Superstars.

In 1984, the show replaced the ailing Tewes with Pat Klous (as Julie’s sister Judy McCoy) and added notorious show-killer Ted McGinley as Ace, the ship’s photographer. Episodic plots became increasingly slapstick; even the casting of Ross as a wife for the long-single Captain Stubing couldn’t stop The Love Boat from sinking. A last-ditch attempt at booking the musical “Love Boat Follies”—starring Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, and Ann Miller—failed to save the show, and it finally left the airwaves in 1986, with a handful of two-hour specials trickling out across the 1986-87 season.

By the time of its final cruise, however, The Love Boat had been broadcast in 90 countries. It was nominated for a Golden Globe four years in a row for Best Series: Comedy Or Musical; MacLoed and Tewes also both racked up Globes nods. The show was even credited with saving the cruise industry, and MacLoed is still an “ambassador” for the Princess Cruises line.


A 1998 revamp called Love Boat: The Next Wave—with Robert Urich captaining a new ship, The Sun Princess—failed to take off. Although the premise was similar, the chemistry of the original cast couldn’t be duplicated, nor could the novelty of the virtual cruise that first enthralled TV audiences in the late ’70s. Those viewers were as familiar with the Promenade Deck and Acapulco Lounge as they were with their own living rooms; they knew the ship would be stopping at Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán. Every week, the credits introduced their captain, their bartender, their very own cruise director before they set sail for another romantic, star-studded adventure.

The Sweeps reports that CBS and NBC knocked themselves out trying to put a dent in ABC’s Saturday-night juggernaut. But for years, no one even came close. In 1983, NBC put all its hopes in über-producer Stephen J. Cannell’s Rousters, a western starring Chad Everett as a descendant of Wyatt Earp. The Rousters promos

featured the stars of that show executing a Love Boat model with .44 Magnums, cackling gleefully when the thing turned into so much plastic confetti, as they shrilled, “Abandon ship, America! Rousters gonna sink The Love Boat!”


Rousters barely lasted a single season: The Love Boat stayed afloat for another three years.

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