Question: This isn't a bet or an argument, but I don't believe a friend of mine who told me they shot the pilot of The Love Boat a bunch of times before the network accepted it. Is that true? I can't believe anyone actually tried to make it that bad. Thanks and keep up the good work. — Vic J., Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Televisionary: I see what you're getting at, Vic, but keep in mind that The Love Boat's brand of "bad" kept it on ABC's schedule for nine years (1977-86) and made it an unsinkable hit from its very start, despite the many waterline shots it took from critics. ("My idea of hell is to spend eternity watching 1950s films starring Sandra Dee, Gale Storm and Doris Day. And when I step out for popcorn, they're showing The Love Boat in the lobby," wrote TV Guide critic Robert MacKenzie, who called ship Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod) "a prissy, smirking dope," in 1977).
MacKenzie was pretty much right on the money, and that probably accounts for at least some of why your pal is right: The series didn't set sail until the producers and ABC executives agreed it was in ship shape, which took three shots at a pilot. "The chemistry of the regulars was all wrong at first," series co-creator Douglas S. Cramer told TV Guide in 1982. He came up with the idea for Love, American Style when he worked at Paramount TV and decided to put it out to sea after he and partner W.L. Baumes came across the Jeraldine Saunders book The Love Boats. McLeod's captain and cruise director Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes) weren't added until the final pilot, when they joined Bernie Kopell's lusty doctor, Ted Lange's likable bartender and Fred Grandy's amiable Gopher, all holdovers from the version before.
Which says what? Well, that coming up with a show you know isn't particularly good but is guaranteed to appeal to middle America is harder than it looks. My guess is those behind the scenes knew they had a strong concept. ("You take Love, American Style-type romances, interweave them on a luxury liner, get a regular cast of likable people, bring in lots of guest stars," was how Cramer summed it up.) But a mass-appeal concept doesn't mean it can be utter garbage. It has to be, well... utterly comforting garbage, which is what cast off with the Pacific Princess and its crew every week.
McLeod certainly caught his share of doubt before his show ever left the dock. ("Old friends were saying, 'Are you crazy doing this thing?'" he recalled.) And even after the series became a hit, those who worked on it had to admit it wasn't necessarily challenging fare. "I don't want to go down in history as the guy who brought it to you," Love Boat director Richard Kinon said of his show. "I mean, it's hardly original or particularly well done. It happens to be a collection of trivia that, when on the TV screen — with the music and sound effects and color and everything — seems to satisfy people. One of the saving graces is that if one of the stories is terrible, or if the [guest] actor isn't really right for the part, you're only with that for a minute or so at a time. The badness doesn't build up."
Now there's a ringing endorsement, eh?
"We're not Hill Street Blues," admitted Grandy, who came to the show after earning a law degree from Harvard Law School and successfully ran for Congress after leaving it. "We don't tackle issues. Vietnam? The ERA? They don't fit. We're an adult cartoon show. People don't talk about us, but they like to have us around, have us on. And, as you know, we're never not on. I think that our comedy could be sharper, our romance could be more poignant, but we must be doing something right. If we were really good, our farce would be like Feydeau, and our romance would be like a Somerset Maugham short story... but it didn't fall that way. This is a volume business."
Indeed it was, and, accordingly, the show shuffled a large volume of guest stars across its decks — an assortment of performers that ran the gamut from the young and hot (Willie Aames, John Ritter, Mackenzie Phillips, Janet Jackson, Lee Majors) to those who'd left some of their heat or youth behind (Milton Berle, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin). But that was the point: There were guests for every viewer, and even if the kids didn't recognize Greer Garson or Gene Kelly, their parents did — and it was a coup to land them for the show.
Mind you, many of the guests, especially the veterans, were people whose résumés boasted work of a higher quality. But they were lured aboard after their friends did it, and paychecks of anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 plus a free cruise certainly didn't hurt. And the producers could be tenacious with the offers. "I'll call anyone," supervising casting director Dennis Hammer said in 1983. "Now, I know Dustin Hoffman just doesn't do television. So I don't phone his people... every week."
And he didn't have to, when so many others were lining up at the gangplank (and I know you're wondering at this point if there are any nautical references even I'm too embarrassed to throw in). And pulling experienced players out of semi-retirement had its advantages. ("[They're] more useful to us than any young actress who takes a dozen takes to say her name," Hammer added.)
All of which added up to smooth sailing for the show for quite some time, a kind of progress marked by an anonymous behind-the-scenes worker who said things were going well because they were "getting a better class of has-been" to sign on.
Not that those "has-beens" (not my term, remember) didn't know exactly why they were there when they appeared. Take Telly Savalas, who probably said a little more than he meant to when interviewed about his guest stint. "Have I ever watched the show?" he said. "Don't ask me embarrassing questions."