Gavin MacLeod is best known for two iconic TV roles of the 1970s and ’80s: menschy newsman Murray Slaughter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and sunny cruise ship helmer Capt. Merrill Stubing on “The Love Boat.” But his career began onstage in the 1950s, and he’s often returned to the boards. Up next is the two-hander Happy Hour at California’s Coachella Valley Rep (Oct. 28–Nov. 22).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: How did this production come about?
GAVIN MACLEOD: I get a lot of mail from people I don’t know. About five, six years ago, I got a script called Happy Hour from this guy named George Eastman. I read it and I could tell this was huge; it’s a very commanding thing. And there are so many lines for the old man! I held on to that play—there was something about it that touched my heart.
Then we moved to Palm Springs and started going to Coachella Valley Rep; [artistic director] Ron Celona is doing a great job there. I said to him, “Would you like to read a play that’s got a little something?” He read it and said, “It is too long, but it really has something to say. Let me talk to the author.” They shrunk it down to playable size, and George worked on it some more. Though I’ve still got more lines than Hamlet!
This is its world premiere, and Princess Cruises is one of the sponsors. That’s a first; they’ve never had anything to do with the theatre, except the shows they’ve got on their ships.
I assume that sponsorship has something to do with you?
After “The Love Boat,” I got a call from a guy named Max Hall at Princess Cruises, and he said, “We have two small ships, but we’re gonna expand. Would you be our spokesman?” I’ve now been there longer than even the new president of the company. We’ve got 18 big ships now; we even have one coming up in China.
Were you a sea dog before playing Capt. Stubing?
No! I knew water was about three quarters of the world and three quarters of my body—that was about it. I was totally ignorant when I got on that first ship. I didn’t even know they had elevators on them.
Back to Happy Hour. What’s it about?
It’s about an old guy living up in Vermont; his wife died five years ago, and his son has to come and talk to him about moving. It’s a universal theme—having to find a place for an older person to live because they can’t live on their own anymore. I had to deal with this with my mom. It’s a funny play, but one man ran out at the end of a reading we did; he couldn’t take the end of it. You laugh and you cry with this one.
There are a lot of musicals on your résumé, but not on Broadway.
I’ve got a story about that. My friend Georgia Engel, from “Mary Tyler Moore,” was in The Drowsy Chaperone, and the guy who was playing the butler opposite her was leaving. I said, “Can you get me an audition?” So I went and met the director, Casey Nicholaw, and I’m up on the stage at the Marquis Theatre all by myself. I sang a song that went: “I’d like to take a bath in Bath / The cleanest city in New York.” It was a song my friend and I wrote many years before for a musical in Ithaca, and I loved getting to tell my friend, “Our song made it to Broadway.” I blew the job, but it was worth it.
Do you remember your first theatrical experience?
Yes. I was 4 years old, and it was a Mother’s Day play. I can still remember it vividly. I was up there saying, “Oh, it’s Mother’s Day. What can I get for my mommy that’s nice?” I walked through the jungle and each animal gave me suggestions for a gift. I remember Jack Moore, the chubby kid, he played the bear, and he said, “The thing to give your mother is a bear hug.” So I went back and gave the girl playing my mother a hug, and I heard the applause—and that did it. I thought, “What’s going on? They like me! I love this.”
You studied and then came to New York, right?
I got a scholarship to Ithaca College. And then I came to New York, and a friend got me a job running the elevator at Radio City Music Hall for $36 a week. I would see the auditioners come and go, and I wanted to do that. But I was bald. So I bought a secondhand hairpiece, and that opened so many doors for me. I got my first Broadway show, A Hatful of Rain.
By the time I saw you on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” though, you were bald—except for those epic sideburns.
Before I did that show, I was playing Jigger in Carousel; the sideburns came from there. I originally read for the part of Lou Grant, but I told them, “I can’t believe myself being Mary’s boss.” Maybe I thought I looked younger than I did.
What is the one thing would you take to a desert island?
Since I’m talking to you, I’ll take American Theatre magazine.
Any parting advice?
The major theme of my life is that it’s never too late. We have choices. You can sit back or you can continue to participate. I’ve chosen to participate.