When Georgia Engel died, one of her obituaries presented the news that Gavin MacLeod was, at that time, the fourth-oldest surviving cast member of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He was younger than Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner, and Betty White. And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s someone to get around to,” and I added him to the schedule. For, sigh, July 18. The schedule is very far out in advance, and while I might have done some shuffling had I heard he was in poor health, there was also a certain amount of awareness that someone his age could die at any time.
Honestly, it took me years to realize that Ernest Hunkle of 1959’s Operation Petticoat was Murray of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Captain Stubing of The Love Boat. It’s hard to picture Gavin MacLeod young, though I’d note that he still doesn’t actually look young as Hunkle, the frazzled yeoman with the tattoo. He was in his late 20s at the time and looks considerably older. Obviously he’s not the funniest character in the movie, but in some ways, he’s its emotional center—he plays the character who’s reacting to a lot of what’s going on the way a real person would. We can’t all be as suave and unruffled as Cary Grant, after all.
Murray, too, has a strong “normal person” vibe to him. Oh, sure, the show’s a lot more grounded, and a lot of its wackiness is more relatable—even if practically everything in Operation Petticoat is based on things that happened to real submarines during World War II, just not all to the same one. But most of the comedy of the show is based on things that really happen in offices, and more of us have experience with offices than naval submarines in time of war. Murray was a slightly harried middle aged family man working in a silly office, and lots of people have been there.
I have, as I’ve written about many times, a list of Quintessential TV Careers shows. Yes, MacLeod was on a lot of those—he did three episodes of Perry Mason, including one based on a book I actually own, just for starters—but of course where a lot of people know him best is as the literal captain of possibly the greatest TV Career Show of all time. After all, when your show is set on a cruise ship, you need a large new population every week. Even most of the extras have to be new. And in charge of the whole thing was Gavin MacLeod.
Life behind the scenes for him wasn’t always great. Alcoholism ended his second marriage . . . and recovery led to a third marriage to the same woman. One which lasted from 1985 until now. Once he got his life together, he seems to have settled into a pleasant, happy existence. And if he was typecast several times over his career, well, he also played several characters that brought people real joy, and he said that made him very happy to do. His loss isn’t a surprise, but it’s still a shame.