‘All of us are still friends’: ‘The Love Boat’ cast sails on


A smiling bartender serves a woman a pink cocktail

Original “Love Boat” cast members Jill Whelan and Ted Lange aboard a Princess Cruise Ship docked in San Pedro. Whelan and Lange reunite on “The Real Love Boat,” CBS’ dating reality series inspired by the beloved vintage series.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

More than 35 years have passed since the final voyage of the TV classic “The Love Boat,” set aboard a luxurious cruise ship, aired in 1986. But time has not dulled the nostalgic glow around the series and its irresistible gimmick — an ever-changing rotation of major and minor celebrities involved in various rom-com adventures about the ship.

Through nine seasons and several reunion specials, more than 500 celebrities from classic Hollywood (Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Lillian Gish, Joan Fontaine, Eva Marie Saint), Broadway (Ethel Merman, Robert Goulet, Tammy Grimes), television (Don Adams, Lorne Greene, Florence Henderson, Eve Arden), music (The Pointer Sisters, Janet Jackson, Engelbert Humperdinck) and sports (Dick Butkus, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Joe Namath) appeared on the ABC series. Also boarding were unlikely guest stars (Halston, Bob Mackie and Andy Warhol among them) and up-and-comers (like Martin Short and Tom Hanks).

Interacting with the colorful passengers and steering them through their romantic highs and lows in every episode was the attentive crew, headed by Capt. Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod). The crew members also engaged in plenty of their own hijinks.

Two of those members — Ted Lange, who played bartender Isaac Washington, and Jill Whelan, who played Stubing’s daughter, Vicki — are hitting the high seas again this week, as they reunite for a reality series inspired by the vintage comedy.

The two will pop in on CBS’ “The Real Love Boat,” featuring singles looking for love and competing in “chemistry and compatibility challenges” aboard a Princess Cruises liner. The winning couple on the show, premiering Wednesday and hosted by Jerry O’Connell and Rebecca Romijn, will receive a cash prize and the “ultimate” luxury Princess Cruise.

“This is a cool way to bring back the essence of our show in a fresh and different way,” said Whelan last week, during a visit to the ViacomCBS headquarters in Hollywood. “It’s a fun opportunity for me and Ted as elder statesmen to come and talk to these kids about what love and romance really looks like.”

Seated next to her was Lange, who kept praising his former co-star. Whelan has kept writing, acting and producing various projects while Lange has stayed active in the theater world as a director and playwright, with a special passion for Shakespeare.

Lange said the experience of being on “The Love Boat” was life-changing. “As I look back, I now realize how lucky I was. I was just trying to build my career, and then I hit this home run on this show. At the time, I thought it was supposed to happen. But now I say to myself, ‘You’re a lucky sonofabitch.’”

“The Love Boat” was a Saturday-night staple during its entire run, and the formula never deviated: three different stories all meshed together during the hour-long installments. A year following its 1977 premiere, the series was paired with “Fantasy Island,” another anthology with new guest stars every week. Both were produced by TV mogul Aaron Spelling.

‘I believe people remember it affectionately because they were younger when they watched it, and it’s reflective of the pop culture personality of the time,” said Neal Sabin, executive vice chairman of Weigel Broadcasting, which oversees the MeTV Network. The digital network, specializing in vintage TV shows, will air episodes of the series next year (“The Love Boat” is currently streaming on Paramount+).

“For parents, they could see these big stars from movies mixed in with young people and along with TV stars who were part of the zeitgeist,” Sabin said. He also said the series had the quality of many series that endure through time: “The key is, are these people you would like to be friends with? The characters on this show were written and acted like they really liked each other.”

Whelan and Lange’s fondness was clear as they chatted and teased each other about the show and and fellow cast members Fred Grandy (yeoman purser Burl “Gopher” Smith), Lauren Tewes (cruise director Julie McCoy) and Bernie Kopell (ship doctor Adam “Doc” Bricker). MacLeod died in May 2021.

On a table in front of them was a huge plate of cookies — a publicist had brought them in to celebrate Whelan’s birthday — but she and Lange were so focused on their memories that the treats remained untouched.

The cast of "The Love Boat" at the Great Wall of China

In this 1983 photo, “The Love Boat” cast poses at the Great Wall of China near Beijing. From left: Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Jill Whalen, Gavin MacLeod, Lauren Tewes and Bernie Kopell.

(Associated Press)

Did you know at the time the show would be such a hit, and still be loved decades later?

Jill Whelan: There’s something special about that time. We’d just come out of a recession when it started and people didn’t have a lot of money. They hadn’t been able to go anywhere. But this show made cruising more accessible. Previously, only wealthy people had done it. Now anyone could have that same cruising experience. They could live in their own fantasy if they were able to book a cruise, or they could enjoy it from their armchair in their living room.

Ted Lange: “The Love Boat” changed the world. Before, cruising was unattainable. But we showed you could take your kid on a cruise. It’s what the universe wanted. Now cruising is not a million-dollar business. It’s a billion-dollar business.

A key to the success of the show, of course, were all the guest stars.

Whelan: The guest stars were either on their way up or on their way down —

Lange: Some of them we actually resuscitated.

Whelan: People would see Gene Kelly or Cab Calloway, who before they had only seen on the big screen. To see them in your living room interacting with these other people who you thought of as family — it was like they were meeting them.

Was there a favorite, or anyone who stood out?

Lange: Can’t do that. That would be like naming your favorite country. But I do remember talking to Martin Short and saying, ‘“You are one funny motherf—. You’re going to hit big.” He said, “Really?” Nobody knew who he was before he was on our show. We had Tom Hanks before he did “Bosom Buddies.” We had people who would become crazy famous, and old pros like Milton Berle.

Whelan: I started on the show when I was 11, too young to understand the enormity of the people we were working with. To me, it was just fun. Ginger Rogers would come on, and I’d get to dance with her. I would get to sing with Ethel Merman and Carol Channing. I’d walk around with Tom Hanks, Lillian Gish, Michael J. Fox. It was a party each week, a playground, and I was just a kid who got to do this thing every day that I loved the most.

"Love Boat" cast member Jill Whelan.

“The guest stars were either on their way up or on their way down,” remembers Jill Whelan, who started on “The Love Boat” at age 11.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

And it’s clear you all had true chemistry.

Lange: That’s the beauty of our show — all of us are still friends. Usually when a show ends, it’s all over and you say goodbye. But “The Love Boat’ crew loves and protects each other. I just directed Fred in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” in Warsaw, Ind., and I’m going to New York to stay with Bernie and his wife. He’s doing a play off Broadway, “Two Jews, Talking.” Bernie is more like my brother, and Fred is like my best friend.

Whelan: I just talked with Tewes this morning.

Lange: I was the first one cast. I didn’t even have to do a screen test. I was coming off this show called “That’s My Mama.” The producers knew I could deliver a laugh. Fred and Bernie had to do a screen test. Bernie would say, “I didn’t see you at the screen test. Were you there earlier?” I told him, “Well, really good actors don’t have to screen test.” From that point on, whenever he would mess up during a scene, I would look at him and say, “That’s why you have to screen test.”

What they didn’t know was that I would have chemistry with Fred and Bernie. That was the surprise. The three of us together was gold. Fred and I would get a scene, and it wasn’t quite right. We’d go into the dressing room and massaged— we were both writers and knew comedy. Then we’d come out. We’d do the scene as written, and then we asked it we could do it the way we had worked it out. They would always choose our way. It was stronger.

What about you, Jill?

Whelan: I had been on this Aaron Spelling show called “Friends.” Not that “Friends,” or I’d be driving a much nicer car. It was about three little kids in different financial positions. I had also guested on “The Love Boat” as Vicki. We were up against “60 Minutes,” so of course it got canceled. I got a call and was asked if I wanted to do “The Love Boat” for real. I was told there had been a great response to me.

Lange: The whole cast had this meeting with Aaron and other producers, and Gavin said, “I’m a f— appendage to the guest star. I want a story! Every week, it’s Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Ruth Buzzi or some lady coming on board, and I’m helping her with her story. I want the captain to have a story.”

Then I said, “I’m not in the front of the show when we greet the passengers, or at the end when they leave. I’m only in the middle. I would like to be like the rest of the cast when they greet people, and I’d like to say goodbye after they solve their romantic problems.”

Gordon Farr, who was the showrunner, said to Aaron that we need to service the desires of the actors because they want to keep Gavin happy. That emergence of Jill and Gavin being father and daughter probably came out of that meeting. And then Gavin started having romances with women like Marion Ross or Elke Sommer.

What was your relationship like with Gavin, Jill?

Whelan: He was this incredible, protective man. He was just like a dad. When he passed, I was able to eulogize him at his funeral.

"Love Boat" cast member Ted Lange

“There were little racist jabs,” Ted Lange remembers of his experience as the only Black person in the “Love Boat” cast. “People would get invites to things, but I wouldn’t get one. The first year, I was going to quit.”

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Ted, where did Isaac’s signature finger-pointing salute come from?

Lange: We were shooting the title shots for the life preserver at the start of the show. This producer Henry Colman was in charge of that, and he says, “Ted, just look into the lens and smile for 30 seconds.” I said, “Henry, what am I doing?” He said, “Think of your paycheck.” It was like, “Say no more,” and I did the finger thing. Black guy making good money. That’s where that came from.

You were the only Black member of the cast. Did you encounter problems?

Lange: There were some people who were doing not-so-nice things. There were little racist jabs. People would get invites to things, but I wouldn’t get one. The first year, I was going to quit. There were these other actors like Robert Guillaume (“Soap”), Don Mitchell (“Ironside”) and Ron Glass (“Barney Miller”) who were in the same situation — Black actors on white shows. I would call them and ask “What should I do?” Don said, “You can’t quit. If you do, someone else will come in and do everything they’re told to do.” Fred and Bernie saw the racism and saw me bucking the system, and they wrote a story that gave Isaac a love interest.

But you still love the show, yes?

Lange: It was so much fun. We made good money. We got to go all over the world, and they filmed us.

Whelan: I was studying the Great Wall of China while I was sitting on the Great Wall of China.

Lange: What can be better than that?

‘The Real Love Boat’

Where: CBS

When: Wednesday, 9 p.m.

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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