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Gavin MacLeod, the good-guy actor who played news writer Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat, has died. He was 90.
MacLeod, a familiar presence in America’s living rooms from 1970 until 1987 thanks to those high-rated shows, died Saturday in his Palm Desert home, relatives said.
Evidently quite comfortable at sea, MacLeod also played Seaman Joseph “Happy” Haines on the 1960s ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy (though he was miserable on that show) and was a supporting player on two notable nautical-themed films — Operation Petticoat (1959), with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, and Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966), starring Steve McQueen.
MacLeod was a favorite of Blake Edwards; in addition to Operation Petticoat, he worked with the famed writer-director on the pilot for the 1950s ABC detective series Peter Gunn and in the musical comedy High Time (1960), starring Bing Crosby, and the Peter Sellers-toplined The Party (1968).
MacLeod also stood out as the mechanic Moriarty in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), starring Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savales, and he appeared in other war films like Pork Chop Hill (1959), War Hunt (1962) and The Thousand Plane Raid (1969).
And years later, MacLeod still was getting stopped on the street by fans who admired his work as Honolulu drug pusher “Big Chicken” in two first-season episodes of the CBS crime drama Hawaii Five-O.
MacLeod, though, came to mainstream fame as Murray — the wisecracking news writer whose copy for WJM-TV’s Six O’Clock News keeps getting bungled by his frequent foil, anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) — on CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show. MacLeod received two Golden Globe noms for his work on the 1970-77 series.
When he auditioned for the show, “They wanted to see me for Lou Grant. Great part, but I wouldn’t believe myself being [Mary’s] boss … but I liked this guy Murray Slaughter,” he recalled in a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television.
After he told producers he thought he would be better off as Murray, he walked past actor Ed Asner, who was pacing in the hallway before his audition. Asner, of course, got the part of Lou.
Asner responded on Twitter Saturday to the news of MacLeod’s death, writing, “My heart is broken. Gavin was my brother, my partner in crime (and food) and my comic conspirator. I will see you in a bit Gavin. Tell the gang I will see them in a bit. Betty [White]! It’s just you and me now.”
MacLeod once described Murray as a regular brown-bagging guy with a second-hand car who “wanted to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, and here he was writing for Mr. Butter Lips.”
About a month after Mary Tyler Moore ended its critically acclaimed run, MacLeod took a call from his agent. “[Producer] Aaron Spelling wants you to do this thing called The Love Boat,” he recalled. “I think it sucks, but do you want to read it? I said sure. I thought, ‘This thing could go; this is a very commercial kind of thing.’
“Aaron said that they’re going to have [in each episode] one poignant story, one broad comedy story and one sophisticated story, with big stars. I said wow. And the captain? I said double wow.”
So MacLeod jumped aboard ABC’s Love Boat. Also starring Bernie Kopell, Ted Lange, Fred Grandy and Lauren Tewes, the series — created by real-life cruise director Jeraldine Saunders — withstood the insults from the critics and lasted from 1977-87.
In an interview with Westways magazine in June 2015, MacLeod noted that he had never been on a cruise ship before starring on Love Boat. (The show was filmed mostly on soundstages but spent six weeks every year filming on ships.)
“The original concept of the character was for [Stubing] to be standoffish,” said MacLeod, who would receive three Golden Globe noms for his work on that show. “In the pilot, the regulars are waiting for this new captain to show up. They were frightened of his reputation: a strict disciplinarian, no heart.
“And then we realized if you want to have a series and be accepted week after week, likability is very important. So he became more like what I think I am: paternal, concerned — but official, stern when he had to be.”
The elder of two sons, he was born Allan George See in Pleasantville, New York, to an Irish-Swedish mother who worked for Reader’s Digest and a father who was part Chippewa Native American. His dad, a part-owner of a gas station, died of cancer when he was 13.
MacLeod attended Ithaca College on a scholarship (his roommate was future radio and TV personality John Bartholomew Tucker) and worked as an usher at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, where he met his first wife, Joan Rootvik, a Rockette. Their marriage lasted 18 years.
MacLeod (he changed his last name to that of his favorite Ithaca drama teacher) debuted as a junkie on Broadway in 1955 opposite Shelley Winters in A Hatful of Rain and accompanied that production on the road. He then moved to Los Angeles and landed a small role in The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958), starring Betsy Palmer and future Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord.
A bit later, he called Susan Hayward a slut, and she threw coffee on him, in Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958). Roles in Compulsion (1959), The Gene Krupa Story (1959) and Twelve Hours to Kill (1960) quickly followed.
“I was a young kid with a bald head [he had gone bald at age 18 and had taken to wearing hairpieces], so I only played pimps, perverts, woman beaters and child molesters,” MacLeod told People magazine in a 1978 interview.
He guest-starred as a jeweler on a 1961 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, working with Moore for the first time, and did The Untouchables and Perry Mason as well, excelling in meaty roles.
Anxious about how he was going to make the payments on his new house in Granada Hills, MacLeod reluctantly signed up for 42 weeks of guaranteed work on McHale’s Navy.
“I had like two lines a week … I started to feel sorry for myself, I started to drink and I became very, very unhappy,” he said in the TV Archive interview. “As an actor I felt I was going down the tubes.”
MacLeod said he put his foot on the brakes moments before driving his car off a cliff near Mulholland Drive.
He implored producer Eddie Montagne to let him off the show. “And then Robert Wise called me to do The Sand Pebbles in China with my old friend, Steve McQueen,” he said. “So my career started again, I had an identity, and I started to feel good about myself.”
Later, he auditioned for the role of Archie Bunker on All in the Family. “I didn’t feel right for the part,” he once said.
In 2011, he wrapped up a five-year stint as honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades, being succeeded by former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, and two years later he published a autobiography, This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life.
Survivors include his wife, Patti, a former dancer whom he married in 1974 (the same year he quit drinking) — they divorced in 1980 and wed again in 1985, when Pat Boone was their best man — his children, Keith, David, Meaghan and Julie; and 10 grandchildren.
He and his wife for years hosted a show for the Trinity Broadcasting Network called Back on Course in which they interviewed troubled couples who managed to stay together. The program, translated into many languages, aired around the world.
“You don’t want to leave God,” he said in 2003, “so as a result you’re going to work things out, because it’s not just the two of you, there’s three.
“To think this guy who tried to commit suicide during McHale’s Navy is now with his wife trying to save people’s lives … what a change.”
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