Today in the Monitor we’re kicking off another one of our periodic features, which we’re calling The MVPs of Me-TV. It’s where we pay tribute to the people whose names and faces keep popping up throughout our schedule of television classics. Surely you’ve had the experience of watching one your favorite programs on Me-TV and spotting an actor from another program in a guest-starring role. Or maybe you’ve watched the closing credits of a show (and as you know, we like to air our programs in their complete form, including epilogues and credits) and have seen a name that you’ve spotted in other shows as well. It certainly happens to us at The Monitor desk, where we’ve got Me-TV going all day long. The folks in neighboring desks are used to us randomly and excitedly saying to no one in particular, yet everyone in general, things like, “Hey, it’s Adam West on Gunsmoke!” or “Holy smokes, John Banner is on Perry Mason today!” or “Look, you guys, it’s Gavin MacLeod playing a heavy called Big Chicken on Hawaii Five-O!” And that seems as fine a place to start as any—ladies and gentlemen, the first MVP of Me-TV, Gavin MacLeod.
When you think of Gavin, which role comes to mind first? Is Captain Merrill Stubing from The Love Boat—ever clad in white, stern yet approachable, serious but not above laughter, a solitary, duty-bound man in command who's without the occasional on-board love interest? MacLeod’s portrayal of the captain was perfectly seasoned with those qualities we love in our ship captains: his wistful and knowing eye looking far into the horizon, with a respect for the power and mystery of the open waters; a man for whom the sea air is the absolute stuff of life; a man who embraces tradition as well as military order, and has the ability to keep any loose cannon crew members in check with a carefully arched eyebrow.
Or do you think of his role as TV news writer Murray Slaughter (now that is a world class name for a sharp-tongued TV character!) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Murray made such effortless sport of slinging stinging, sarcastic barbs at the perpetually clueless newsman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight, absolutely another MVP of Me-TV; watch this space) that even he seemed to be slightly bored by it. For Murray, zinging Ted was target practice; it was an open net shot. Ted made it so easy; Murray barely had to look up from his typewriter. But what saved the Murray character from simply being a one-note insult machine were those peeks behind the defensive armor of his humor andinto his despair as a man. There were struggles at home, there were frustrations at the job and his seeming lack of a career path, and perhaps most profoundly there were the dashed dreams of his becoming a serious writer. As with all the truly great shows, three-dimensional characters populated The Mary Tyler Moore Show, not just caricatures constructed merely as delivery systems for laughs. And MacLeod was deft enough to believably reveal the vulnerable, aching man behind Murray's seemingly impenetrable shield of caustic putdowns.
But MacLeod’s characters have not always been the avuncular, affable types. He appeared in a variety of roles in The Untouchables (with great character names like William ‘Porker’ Davis and Three-Fingered Jack White), and things usually turned out badly for him, succumbing to either the bullet or the big house. He made five appearances in the show altogether.
He was great as the sneering, taunting drug dealer with the unlikely moniker of Big Chicken in Hawaii Five-O and made several appearances as the character. Here he is squaring off against Steve McGarrett and seemingly skipping out scot-free.
He worked with Raymond Burr on both Perry Mason (three times) and Ironside (a single appearance), had supporting roles in Rawhide,Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Combat!, The Big Valley (different roles in three episodes), different characters in four Hogan’s Heroes episodes, made a Wonder Woman appearance, and of course brought the Murray Slaughter character to Rhoda from time to time. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of his movie roles and non Me-TV television appearances.
Recent years have found the tireless Gavin MacLeod (born in 1931 and still going strong at 83!) authoring his life story (“This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life”) and serving as the long-time spokesperson for the Princess Cruise line. Here he is appearing with Betty White in a fantastic flight safety video for New Zealand Airlines:
Gavin MacLeod, one of The MVPs of Me-TV!