Farewell to a Cruise and Hollywood Legend: Gavin MacLeod (aka Captain Stubing)
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
Gavin MacLeod was a talented actor who performed in films and television. He played supporting roles in two well-liked TV shows and a lead role in one of television’s most popular shows, The Love Boat. But he’s also a key person in the popularity of cruising, an industry that has generated over 436,000 American jobs.
I never met Gavin MacLeod, but he unknowingly played a huge part in my career. I was fresh out of school when I started working in a travel agency during the height of “The Love Boat.”
I had already known him from reruns of McHale’s Navy and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. “Mary” was a role model for this teen of a successful, single woman living out on her own. On her show, Gavin MacLeod’s character is a news writer where Mary works and is her friend.
“I think when life gets heavy, people look for an escape. “The Love Boat” is an escape. We have happy endings. You don't see many of those around. I think it gave people a vicarious adventure.”
― Gavin MacLeod, This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith and Life
And then he was on The Love Boat, a show many critics claimed wouldn’t last. As Captain Merrill Stubing, he oversaw the fictitious “MS Pacific Princess,” which was filmed on the very real ships, Princess Cruises’ Pacific Princess and Island Princess and with very real passengers on board. The recipe for this show couldn’t have been better. It was a romantic comedy with a unique setting, a catching theme song and an incredible cast. Each week brought on characters played by a revolving cast of popular famous people, most often actors as well as singers and comedians. Everyone who was anyone seemed to show up at some point over the show’s ten years. It was a time when Americans (and people from other countries) enjoyed fun, easy-going shows. Yes, it was corny, but we loved it for 10 years before revisiting it through reruns.
What affected the travel industry and my career was the popularity of the show’s settings. MS Pacific Princess mostly visited Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. While both towns were growing as vacation destinations, they were often thought of as unattainable by the “average person.” Instead, they were more often in the news as celebrity hangouts. Now, these two Mexican Riviera cities were building in popularity among the rest of us.
But the obvious and most significant effect on the cruise industry and travelers was the setting of a cruise ship. The ship was the ultimate hostess, bringing stories of romance, laughs, and cruising into our homes. And Gavin MacLeod was the funny leader, escort, boss, and somewhat “uncle” at times who led the bunch. I wonder if I was the only show fan who wished that Captain Stubing was my uncle?
Love Boat introduced millions of people to cruising. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this show is ultimately responsible, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of thousands of people becoming cruisers. People came into travel agencies wanting to experience what they saw on the show. They wanted to see the shows and exciting destinations, to enjoy the pool, and play the games. They wanted to meet the captains and cruise directors and to chat with the friendly bartenders. They saw the fun, the escape from everyday life and the friendly crew led by Captain Stubing.
“If I can do it, anybody can do it. Willpower is strong! I believe that. You just have to have faith in yourself—and God—and make sure you know where your priorities stand.” ― Gavin MacLeod, This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith and Life
MacLeod and his fellow cast and this show built up cruising while I was new in the industry. Heck, it made me want to get on a cruise. Which led to my sailing on many cruises and helping thousands of others to enjoy cruising over the years. I wonder how many cruised because of the show or because parents or grandparents who watched the original episodes brought them on their first cruise?
But The Love Boat did present one issue that we always had to address with first-time cruisers coming to us because of the show. As I mentioned, it was filmed on two of Princess Cruises’ ships. BUT it was also filmed on a sound stage. The problem? The perceived size of cabins! The show made cruise ship cabins all look huge. Well, at least large. But huge compared to “real life” ships, particularly back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. People didn’t know what parts were filmed on ships versus land. Therefore, I learned quickly to give novice cruisers whose comparison was a television show a realistic expectation of the size of the cabin they would be living in.
“Filming “The Love Boat” was exciting, but sometimes it was hard to keep track of where to show up for work. It all depended on the cut. Some of them were really on the ship. Some were really on the set. Like if they had the stars for a week, that was usually on the set, except if we were on location for that particular show.” ― Gavin MacLeod, This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith and Life
Gavin MacLeod became devoted to Princess Cruises and the cruise industry. For 35 years following the show, he was a brand ambassador and spokesperson for Princess. While much of the cast showed up for some events, MacLeod was a constant at big Princess events. He seemed to love his role. And by all accounts of anything I’ve seen and anyone I’ve talked to who had met him, he was a kind, friendly man who took the time to talk to people.
It’s been over 40 years since Gavin MacLeod first brought Captain Stubing and his crew into our living rooms. Princess Cruises’ ships have a channel that plays the reruns back-to-back. I still find myself enjoying those reruns when I want to flip on the TV as I get ready for my day, prepare for my evening, or before going to bed. It sure beats watching the news while on vacation!
One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives to “captain” is “a person of importance or influence in a field.” Gavin MacLeod’s character didn’t just command a fictitious cruise ship. In many ways, he was a captain in a larger sense, influencing many thousands of travelers and people working in the industry. I regret that I never met him and, with is passing this past week, I’ve missed the opportunity. But I have the deepest appreciation for the role he played and especially the person he was.
Farewell, Captain Stubing.