When fans tuned in to wish The Love Boat a bon voyage on May 24, 1986, they got what they expected. After three made-for-TV movies and nine seasons, the final episode of The Love Boat didn’t deliver anything exciting or new. Instead, the finale offered tenderness and corny jokes, absurd situations and ’80s glamour, and, of course, guest stars.
The series took a bow with a fittingly-odd assortment of Hollywood veterans and new names including Star Wars alum Clive Revill, Police Academy regular Michael Winslow, a 21-year-old Teri Hatcher and Marion Ross (Marion Cunningham on Happy Days).
The anchor of ABC’s popular Saturday-night lineup for a decade, The Love Boat had become an institution by 1986. What started with a trio of ’70s TV movies blossomed into a series on Sept. 24, 1977.
When the program set sail, the crew it introduced stayed mostly intact until the 1986 conclusion, with Gavin MacLeod as Your Captain Merrill Stubing, Bernie Kopell as Your Ship’s Doctor Adam “Doc” Bricker, Fred Grandy as Your Yeoman Purser Burl “Gopher” Smith and Ted Lange as Your Bartender Isaac Washington. Lauren Tewes played Cruise Director Julie McCoy through Season 7 and, while a battle with drug addiction interrupted her run, she overcame it and returned for a handful of specials. Jill Whelan appeared as Vicki Stubing, the Captain’s daughter, for the last six seasons.
Watch ‘The Love Boat’ Opening
The show’s success depended on a strict formula: three storylines filled with those amazing and bizarre guest stars and the lovable crew as they crisscrossed between the lido deck, a laugh track and glorious fashion choices. One plot typically featured the crew doing a bit of Marx-Brothers-at-sea zaniness: What’s Captain Stubing to do with stowaway Charo, her broken guitar and broken English? Another had a dramatic twist: Maureen McCormick is terminally ill, but her parents haven’t told her and now she’s head over heels for Jay Thomas! The third pushed the romance: Patty Duke falls for Ricky Nelson (too bad he has amnesia!).
Over 245 episodes, this formula played out through endless variations and endless guests. It really can’t be overstated how eclectic the guests were. Each week, before Fantasy Island revealed its own slate of Hollywood stars de-boarding “da plane,” fans would listen to Jack Jones croon the theme song and watch a parade of smiling faces pop up in a porthole-shaped clip.
Sometimes it would be future A-listers but then-unknowns such as Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Tim Robbins and Billy Crystal. Sometimes it would be icons from the golden age of Hollywood, like Olivia de Havilland, Rita Moreno, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney and Debbie Reynolds. Buy typically it would be mix of all that plus TV faces, professional athletes and celebrities of the day, ranging from Gloria Vanderbilt to the Harlem Globetrotters to six-ninths of the Bradys (only Greg, Bobby and Cindy didn’t set sail). This was a show even Andy Warhol appeared on.
The idea was that everyone in America would recognize one of the guests. Maybe the Greatest Generation tuned in for Don Ameche, while baby boomers came for Jimmie Walker and Gen Xers up past bedtime wanted to see Janet Jackson.
Watch Michael J. Fox on ‘The Love Boat’
The regulars and their guests had to riff on stories of lost and found love or found and lost love (or found and lost and found again) over and over again. Somehow, every week, the writers had to arrange a novel constellation of widows, divorcees, separated couples, missed connections, reunited old flames and love at first sight across multiple generations. Three plots and 245 episodes adds up to 735 storylines … and that’s not counting the TV movies and specials. How did they keep it fresh?
Instead of inserting just any lonely widow, the writers had their widow’s husband’s ghost trying to fix up his wife with a new love. If you’re going to reunite a woman with her college crush, make sure she’s blind. Naturally, a recently divorced man will get back out there, but will he do it with the lawyer who represented his ex-wife in the divorce proceedings? Sure, sparks may fly between a tennis pro and sportswriter, but they’ll burn really hot if you put both characters in wheelchairs.
No less than two ghosts, three sets of twins, four dogs and five literally blind lovers provided plot points. Does it seem like too much? Not for a show that twice brought in Elizabeth the Koala as a featured guest and constantly insisted that “Doc” Bernie Kopell was a hunk.
Watch Florence Henderson on ‘The Love Boat’
Critics hated it. The New York Times called it “dreadful porridge.” Still, it cruised to great ratings year after year. The Love Boat ended on the same strange and magic waters it sailed through for years. The captain puzzled over love. Gopher questioned if leaving the ship for a fancy hotel was the right move (again). Doc got shoehorned into the episode. And a few Happy Days alums, a dusty thespian and a B-movie actor mixed in the action.
Those looking for a Charo return or a 10th appearance of Florence Henderson came away disappointed. But Charo and Henderson would be back a year later in the reunion special “Who Killed Maxwell Thorn?” Two of the show’s stalwarts would join Marion Ross, Steve Allen, Alan Thicke, Milton Berle, Carol Channing, Don Knotts, Robert Reed and a dozen more in a murder mystery.
The final season may have swapped in Dionne Warwick for Jack Jones to sing the theme song, but the formula remained until that last laugh track cackle and black-tie dinner at the captain’s table. The Love Boat promised something for everyone – provided everyone is interested in watching Richard Kline of Three’s Company pretending to have amnesia to woo back his former fiancee.