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Gavin MacLeod, skipper on ‘Love Boat’ and renowned TV actor, dies at 90

Gavin MacLeod with actresses Marilyn Michaels, left, and Debbie Reynolds on a 1982 episode of “The Love Boat.” (Doug Pizac/AP)
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Gavin MacLeod, a character actor whose prolific career in menacing roles took an unexpected turn in the 1970s and 1980s when he became one of the most beloved faces on TV, as a wisecracking TV news writer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and then as the amiable skipper of “The Love Boat,” died May 29 at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 90.

A nephew, Mark See, confirmed the death but said he did not know the immediate cause.

Bald at 18, with a husky physique as a young man and a faint “Noo Yawk” accent, Mr. MacLeod had the unlikely makings of a popular show-business personality who amassed more than 100 television and film credits over a ­six-decade career. “I went all over town looking for an agent,” he noted in his memoir of his early struggles, “but no one was interested in representing a young man with a bald head.”

Thanks to a secondhand toupee — all he could afford at the time — and some luck, he embraced his offbeat looks and initially found his niche playing drug pushers, malevolent authority figures and clammy thugs. He was a detective who roughed up Susan Hayward in the movie that earned her an Oscar, “I Want to Live!” (1958), a cocky and cunning dope pusher named Big Chicken in two memorable episodes of “Hawaii Five-O,” and a squash-playing mobster on the jazzy detective series “Peter Gunn.”

He periodically dabbled in comedy before his breakthrough — as he neared 40 and after a diet and exercise regimen that dramatically slimmed him down — on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

The series, which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977, was widely heralded as a cultural milestone for its uncondescending portrayal of the professional single woman and drew acclaim for what New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor called “one of the best casts ever brought together” and “a comedy of character, growing out of personality development more than situation.”

The ensemble included Moore as Mary Richards, a spunky assistant news producer at a Minneapolis TV station; Ed Asner as the gruff, spunk-hating news producer Lou Grant; Betty White as the lusty and backstabbing home-advice show host Sue Ann Nivens; Mr. MacLeod as the news writer Murray Slaughter, who seems in perpetual midlife crisis; and Ted Knight as the epically egocentric and dimwitted anchorman Ted Baxter, whom Murray always manages to deflate with an acerbic quip.

In one of the show’s most famous episodes, involving a funeral for a TV clown named Chuckles, Ted remarks how his own service would have had far more people in attendance. “That’s right, Ted,” Murray says. “It’s just a matter of giving the public what they want.”

Mr. MacLeod described his character as a man who once dreamed of Pulitzer glory but wound up working in TV and becoming stuck in a “lunch in a brown bag, secondhand car” existence.

When “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” came to an end, Mr. Mac­Leod found himself inundated with offers. His agent passed along the script for a TV pilot produced by Aaron Spelling called “The Love Boat,” with a caveat that the idea “sucks.” But Mr. MacLeod said he felt instinctively that the shipboard comedy-drama featuring multiple story lines — veering between poignant and broadly comic — had tremendous commercial appeal.

The problem, he said, was that his character, Capt. Merrill Stubing, was originally conceived as a fear-inspiring recovering alcoholic. “I said you can’t have a mean guy come in week after week,” he told the Television Academy Foundation in 2003. “So we slowly started to evolve him into a father figure — a nice, caring, strong father figure” with a reassuring salute.

The series, which ABC aired from 1977 to 1986, was the epitome of escapist fare, starting with its familiar opening theme crooned by Jack Jones promising a love that was “exciting and new” and “won’t hurt anymore.” It took audiences to exotic ports of call and featured an ever-rotating passenger guest list of upcoming performers (Morgan Fairchild, Janet Jackson) and long-vanished Hollywood stars (Olivia de Havilland, Van Johnson) — not to mention regular appearances by the vivacious Spanish performer Charo (“cuchi-cuchi”).

The show had a cast of amiable shipboard archetypes: Bernie Kopell played the semi-Lothario doctor; future congressman Fred Grandy was the eager young purser; Ted Lange was the cool bartender; Lauren Tewes was the pert cruise director; and Jill Whelan played the captain’s cute-as-a-button daughter.

Critics may have snickered — The Washington Post’s Tom Shales noted that “The Love Boat” pulls “the median level of mediocrity down to unfathomable lows” — but audiences watched in droves.

“People turn on the television and see pretty girls in bikinis, people making love, the sun,” Mr. MacLeod told The Post. “Most of the mail I get, people say thanks for making them feel good. We give them happy endings.”

Mr. MacLeod was born Allan George See in Mount Kisco, N.Y, on Feb. 28, 1931, and grew up in Pleasantville, N.Y. His father, an alcoholic, flitted from job to job before dying of cancer at 39. His mother became an assistant at Reader’s Digest and at a bank and had little time for parenting.

He traced his career aspirations to a school-sponsored Mother’s Day play at 4 and the waves of applause that greeted him. “I felt loved,” he told the TV archive interviewer. “I felt that’s where I belonged. . . . I wanted to be somebody else, not me.”

On a scholarship, he graduated from New York’s Ithaca College in 1952 and, after brief Air Force service, began making the casting rounds in New York, newly re-christened Gavin MacLeod (in part as homage to a drama teacher with that surname).

He became an understudy toward the end of the 1955-56 Broadway run of “A Hatful of Rain,” a hit drama about a drug addict. He went on one night, and his performance as a junkie caught the attention of a talent scout from Twentieth Century Fox studios, where casting agents saw him as a combination of the bald dynamo Yul Brynner and the unbalanced hoods perfected by Richard Widmark.

He played seaman Joseph “Happy” Haines on ABC’s “McHale’s Navy” from 1962 to 1964 but said he found that role so negligible that he began years of heavy drinking and fell into a suicidal depression. He finally begged for release from his contract, and a sympathetic producer let him go. He readily picked up his TV and Los Angeles stage career.

When he came in to read for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Mr. MacLeod was initially asked to read for the part of the growly boss Lou Grant. It was a big role, but he later told CNN TV host Larry King that he knew instinctively that audiences “would believe me as being a peer but not her boss.” He persuaded producers to let him try for the role of Murray Slaughter.

Mr. MacLeod’s first marriage, to former Rockette Joan Rootvik, ended in divorce in 1972. He later married, divorced and remarried Patti Steele, a singer and dancer. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage; three stepchildren; a brother; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After “The Love Boat,” Mr. MacLeod and his wife Patti also became staples of the Trinity Broadcasting Network with “Back on Course,” a Bible-driven, couples-therapy program that aired for 17 years.

Mr. MacLeod spoke of his interest in helping others overcome adversity in deeply personal terms, noting his experience with childhood poverty, years of alcohol dependency and bleak career prospects until middle age.

“When you think, as an actor, that it’s all over or when the door has been slammed in your face or if they say you’re too young, you’re too old, and you’re too heavy, or your hair is the wrong color or you don’t have any hair, that is not necessarily what you should go by,” he told the Television Academy Foundation. “Go by your desire to do what you want to do, because when a door closes, another one opens.”

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