Your Captain Speaking: Our Chat with Gavin MacLeod

A few weeks ago, right here in the Me-TV Monitor, we tipped our hat to the great Gavin MacLeod, one of the busiest actors of all time. Looking through his vast resume, we realized that in addition to his notable achievements in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Love Boat, he’d been in, well, a boatload of other Me-TV shows as well. Just take a look at his IMDB page, and you’ll see what we’re getting at here. It seemed only fitting that we declare Gavin MacLeod as our first ever “MVP of Me-TV”.

We posted our article, bolstered it with the requisite Facebook and Twitter mentions, and lo and behold, word got back to Mr. MacLeod in short notice, and his official Twitter account gave us a shout out. Encouraged, we got ahold of his management and boldly asked if Mr. MacLeod would mind speaking with The Me-TV Monitor. To our delight, he consented, solidifying his status as an MVP of Me-TV.

We rang Mr. MacLeod precisely at noon, our agreed upon time. He picked up the phone

…Talk about punctuality! You’re right on the button! You know, I’m already very familiar with Me-TV, because my brother calls me all the time—as a matter of fact he called me last week and said “Gavin, your Hawaii Five-O is on!”

Big Chicken!

Big Chicken, yeah! I still get a lot of talk about that. I did a lot of shows on Me-TV. I did a lot of Big Valleys with Barbara Stanwyck, and of course there was Mary Tyler Moore. That’s a wonderful network! And I tell you, a lot of the folks I run into here all talk about watching it. Because that’s the one thing; you used to be able to sit with your grandkids and watch television, and you can’t even sit with yourself!

We recently wrote a blog for our website in which we declared you the first MVP of Me-TV, because we were looking over your massive resume. Just listen to this list: Hogan’s Heroes, Perry Mason, Rawhide, The Big Valley, Hawaii Five-O, Gomer Pyle, The Untouchables, Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Rhoda, Love American Style, Combat!, The Rat Patrol, Wonder Woman, The Man From U.NC.L.E, Andy Griffith, and of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Love Boat. You’ve been in all those shows!

Wow. I’m starting to feel old! (Much laughter all around.)

You know, I‘ve been so blessed to be able to be on those things and work with some of those people—and a lot of them aren’t here now. But, boy, that was good television, you know. Those were good times, and I’m glad I had those opportunities. So, yeah, I guess I’ve been on your channel a lot!

In fact, Joyce Bulifant, who played my wife on Mary Tyler Moore, she’s married to Roger Perry. He’s a fabulous actor who was under contract to Lucy and Desi in the early years, and every time I run into him he says, “You know, you killed me in Garrison’s Gorillas, and I killed you in Combat!” And so every time we look at each other, we say ‘Bang, bang!’

First of all, let’s talk about your book.

Yes, it’s called This is Your Captain Speaking, and it’s about my life and the things that I’ve been through. You know, like a lot of different people, you have the highs and the lows, and the ecstasy and the depression and all that, and so you hang in there. And the message of the book is to never give up.

When I had just come out to the west coast, I had just done a tour of A Hatful Of Rain. That was my first Broadway play, with Shelley Winters, Ben Gazzara, Anthony Franciosa—all Actors Studio people, except for me! And I was a young kid with a bald head and a second hand hairpiece. That’s how I got in my first Broadway show; I bought a hairpiece that somebody else had turned in. That’s all I could afford, because I was working at Radio City Music Hall, making $34 a week as an usher. This was all after college. I was in New York, and we did the play for about five months and we went on the road for a long time.

We finally played California, and I got offered the role of a drug pusher in a movie, because that was the part I was doing in the play. I wasn’t wearing my hair in that, because I only wore it if I was going out for one of the leads, which I understudied for. So I made a whole career out of being bald and not bald! Every place I would go, that secondhand hairpiece would go. I had that in a box in my car—when I finally got a car. And whenever I’d go on an interview, I’d take that hairpiece in a box with me to see if they wanted me to put it on or not. Jessica Tandy used to say that, as an actor, you take what is your liability, and it becomes your asset. And being bald as a young man was certainly a liability, but I ended up marrying a beautiful Rockette—she saw the inner me.

But what happened was, there was a show called The $64,000 Question, a Hal March show and one of the hottest shows on television. He was coming out to the west coast to do a new pilot. And I met the director of the show, who thought I’d be great to play the director in the show, and they hired me. I didn’t have too much money, but I got a new sweater because I wanted to look good going on the set. I had a late call that day, about 11:30. Normally you show up at about 7am. I showed up and they were rehearsing, and I met everyone.

We rehearsed a short scene, and then broke for lunch. I was only eating Jell-O because I was trying to keep my weight down and was just sitting there looking over the script. The first assistant came over and told me the casting director wanted to see me. And he said, “Why don’t you take your script with you,” and I said, “Okay.” And then he said, “Why don’t you take your sweater with you, too,” and I said, “Okay.” I was in my ‘20s and I didn’t know anything. I asked him where everybody was, and he told me we were going to another set. So I started asking myself what why were going to another set, and why do I have my sweater: Am I being fired? 

So we finally get to the screen door of the casting director—I can still see it in front of me—and I ask, “Is what’s happening to me what I think is happening to me? Am I being fired?” And she said, “Yeah, they’re letting you go.” I started crying! And I went to the casting director, and he told me not to worry, because I was still going to get paid anyway, and I said that it wasn’t that, but it was just that acting was the only thing that I thought I could do.

But I asked them what was happening, and they said the director had a friend who he always wanted to give the part to, but he wanted to look at me, and after looking at me he still wanted his friend to play the part! So I went to my agent’s and they said, “What are you doing here?” And I’m weeping and I say, “Hal March fired me!” So they called over there, and he tells me I’m still going to get paid but, again, I say, “That’s not the point!”

Anyway, I was headed back to the apartment my wife and I were renting, and I get there and she’s a little surprised to see me. I told her I got fired, and I was so upset, just thinking how nobody wants a kid with a bald head. And I just said, “Let’s go back to New York. At least people are honest there. Why did this guy have me in if he knew he wanted to give the part to someone else?”

Two hours later, the phone rings and it’s my agent, and he says, “Do you know Blake Edwards?” Well, I’d heard of him, and back then actors would send out little postcards with their picture on them, to let people know what you were up to. And my agent said, “He wants to see you. Can you get over there by 4 O’clock?” I still had the car I rented, so I said yes. I said, “Should I bring my hair?” And he said, “Yes! Bring your hair!”

I got over to his office, and there was a guy with a lot of hair sitting there, a very handsome dude, and I thought, what am I doing here? And that was Carl Betz from The Donna Reed Show. Well, I got in to see Blake, and we started talking and talking, hitting it off, and he’s read the reviews I’ve gotten for Hatful of Rain. So he knew a little bit about me, and he says, “You know, Gavin, I’m going to make this Peter Gunn pilot, and the lead heavy was going to be Italian, but I want you to play him. I’m going to make him Irish and his name’s going to be Fallon.” And that was the beginning! They sold that pilot in, like, two minutes.

And then consequently, I did Operation Petticoat, with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, and then I did High Times with Bing Crosby and a bunch of young actors, and then I finally did The Party with Peter Sellers—all for Blake!

Birdie Num Nums!

That’s right, Birdie Num Nums! I tell you, he was a brilliant improviser. Blake was using the same (video playback) system that Jerry Lewis was starting to use. So we didn’t have a script, but we did have three pages of ‘incidents’ we wanted to shoot. We’d improvise, and then we’d gather behind the camera to watch what we’d just done, and Blake would make suggestions, and then we’d shoot it. And that’s how we did The Party—we shot it on Sam Goldwyn’s lot, where many years later we went to shoot The Love Boat television series!

Tomorrow: Part two of our chat with the great Gavin MacLeod


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