The Love Boat

views updated

The Love Boat

Like its sister series, Fantasy Island, ABC's The Love Boat was one of television's most reliable barometers of celebrity. Guests on the show, it was said, were either on their way up or on their way down. That they wanted to come on at all was evidence of the program's formidable popularity with viewers. Perfectly ensconced in a Saturday night time slot, when shut-ins and the socially challenged are most apt to be watching TV, this airy seaborne soufflé rode the public's fascination with recognizable performers to ratings success over the course of nine improbable seasons from 1977 to 1986.

Based on a forgettable 1974 novel by former cruise ship director Jeraldine Saunders, the lighthearted anthology interwove three romantic plots over the course of one hour each week. The series eschewed the book's soapy conventions in favor of romantic comedy like the similarly structured Love, American Style. Set on board the fictional cruise liner Pacific Princess, The Love Boat featured a cast of regulars playing the roles of the ship's crew, with a new batch of has-beens and up-and-comers introduced as ship's passengers in each episode. Plot complications often involved mistaken identities, bittersweet reunions, and the ever-popular premarital reservations. The sex was suggested rather than shown, although the very concept of a "love boat" reflected the permissive sexual attitudes coming to the fore in American life.

Producer Aaron Spelling was enlisted to shepherd the program to air after two pilot episodes went down in flames, reportedly because of poor casting. With his keen sense of the likes and dislikes of the American viewing public, Spelling assembled a floating repertory company of genial B-list performers. Gavin MacLeod, late of TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show, played the ship's captain, Merrill Stubing. The antic Bernie Koppell, so effective as the evil genius Siegfried on Get Smart, provided comic tonics as ship's physician Adam "Doc" Bricker. Newcomer Lauren Tewes played perky cruise director Julie McCoy, while Fred Grandy and Ted Lange rounded out the cast as the ship's purser and bartender, respectively.

The Pacific Princess sailed to many exotic locations over the course of its nine-year run. Acapulco, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Sydney were only a few of the ports that welcomed the ocean-liner of love. Even more exotic were some of the guest stars who booked passage—many of them for multiple engagements. Suzanne Somers, John Ritter, and Loni Anderson were a few of the contemporary stars who dropped in for an episode or two, although game show regulars like Bert Convy, Fannie Flagg, and the Landers Sisters were more typical of the caliber of star featured regularly. The show also became a safe haven for old-time Hollywood legends, many of them lured by the promise of a free cruise (the show was often filmed on location). Some of the show business fossils who turned up on the Love Boat decks included Lana Turner, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche.

Perhaps the most bizarre passenger to grace the Princess' poop deck was pop art impresario Andy Warhol, who played himself on the program's 200th episode in 1985. The man who coined the term "fifteen minutes of fame" may have been bemused by the show's celebration of the cult of celebrity, but he showed no emotion as he virtually sleepwalked through his appearance. In a turn of events that surely would have tickled Warhol's fancy, bumbling ship's purser Fred Grandy actually won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, shortly after the show concluded its nine-year voyage.

The Love Boat steamed on unchanged well into the 1980s, although original cast member Lauren Tewes was forced to leave the show in 1984 after a well-publicized bout with cocaine addiction. A few format tweaks (including the introduction of the singing, dancing "Love Boat Mermaids") heralded the show's inevitable ratings slide, however, and the Princess was finally put into drydock in 1986. It returned for a series of highly rated televised reunion movies, all featuring the original cast. A new series, Love Boat: The Next Wave debuted in 1998 to lukewarm public response.

Richard Kinon, who directed many episodes of The Love Boat, once described the show's formula as "romance and pap." Few television historians would disagree with that assessment, although in its own way the show did say something about the mood of the country that watched it so avidly. At its height, Love Boat was a kind of floating Studio 54 for the mom-and-pop set—a weekly shipboard party filled with famous faces and soft-serve sexcapades. And for a weary post-Watergate populace desperate for any entertainment that did not require hard thinking, this was just what the cruise director ordered.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Saunders, Jeraldine. The Love Boat (Collector's Edition). St. Paul, Minnesota, Llewellyn Publications, 1998.

Spelling, Aaron, with Jefferson Graham. Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Wallace, David. "Once Slated for Dry Dock, The Love Boat Cruises Boozily into Its Ninth Nautical Season." People Weekly. April 15, 1985, 130.