February 27, 1978 12:00 PM

His despair over, Gavin says, ‘I envy every minute I’m alive’

After seven wisecracking years behind the news desk as The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s acerbic Murray, Gavin MacLeod surely misses the old gang. Right? “When something’s over, forget it,” MacLeod snorts happily. “I don’t miss it at all. We were close. But I don’t miss my ex-wife either.”

MacLeod isn’t looking back professionally because he’s the only MTM regular to emerge this season with an unqualified hit show. After 47 years, 35 movies and some 300 TV parts, MacLeod is in command of ABC’s The Love Boat, with its musical staterooms, leering double entendres and busty guest stars imported from other ABC shows. (The $5,000 guest rate on the anthology series is TV’s highest.)

When it cast off last fall, The Love Boat’s destination seemed to be the mothball fleet. “A dreadful porridge,” sniffed the New York Times, which commiserated with MacLeod for “the misfortune of being stuck with the rest of the series.” Yet it is the previously unsinkable Carol Burnett Show opposite on CBS that is being scuttled, after 11 years. Love Boat, meanwhile, has steamed into the top five shows.

“Being an underdog and coming out a winner gives any human being satisfaction,” says MacLeod. “I’m doing exactly what I want. I give thanks all the time. My producer says to me, ‘Cheer down.’ People say, ‘We can’t find anything bad to say about you.’ I say, ‘Talk to my first wife.’ ”

MacLeod openly admits he was “suicidal” during a bitter divorce five years ago (“It was the first in my family and the guilt was killing me”). He drank heavily and his weight ballooned to 265 pounds (vs. his present 191). “I had colitis. I went to the hospital and the nutritionist told me, ‘If you keep this up, you’re going to die.’ I was scared.” He tried psychiatric help—recommended by, of all people, Robert (Baretta) Blake—but it took remarriage to pull him out. “Gavin was an alcoholic,” MacLeod’s present wife, Patti, says bluntly. “He became a different person when he drank. But before we were married he said, ‘I will never take another drink because I don’t want to lose what we have.’ ”

Today MacLeod is a nonsmoking, teetotaling “lacto-vegetarian” (cheese and milk are okay). “Every morning I get up and thank God for my health,” he says. After that, he jogs or pants through a set of Jack La Lanne exercises. “When I hear anything negative, I just say, ‘Cancel it,’ ” MacLeod explains. Ditto to his new show’s critics. “They rapped MTM when it was first on the air,” Gavin argues. “Everyone hates Love Boat but the people.”

The elder of two sons, he was born Allan George William See in Mount Kisco, N.Y. to an Irish mother and a part Chippewa father, an electrician, who died when Gavin was 13. “His dream was for me to be an accountant,” MacLeod recalls. “But I wanted to be an actor. Kindergarten was my first part.”

He won a scholarship to Ithaca College, served in the Air Force and made his Broadway debut with Shelley Winters in A Hatful of Rain (changing his name to Gavin because he liked it, to MacLeod as tribute to a college acting teacher). Then came movies and typecast “heavy” parts. “I was a young kid with a bald head so I only played pimps, perverts, woman beaters and child molesters,” MacLeod explains. He finally made it to a TV series in McHale’s Navy.

In the meantime, MacLeod’s 18-year marriage to a Rockette he met while working as an usher at Radio City Music Hall fizzled. “I was 24 when I married, but emotionally I was 12.” His four children—Keith, 18, David, 16, Julie, 15, and Meghan, 13—live with their mother and see Gavin every week. He met Patti, a dancer with three grown children from her own first marriage, at an actors’ workshop and married her four years ago. (Once practicing Catholics, they have since joined the Church of Religious Science.)

They lived on the 18th floor of a Santa Monica apartment building until an earthquake last October intensified Gavin’s acrophobia. “It took me weeks to even walk on my patio again,” he admits. “I was afraid I’d fall into the ocean.” Now they are remodeling a Brentwood ranch house with the $20,000-plus he makes for each Love Boat episode. A Jacuzzi will be in the bathroom, and Gavin plans to relocate his large collection of Kewpie dolls from their second home in Palm Springs.

When TV history is written, MacLeod may be credited with establishing a new anatomical sex object: the knobby knees he displays beneath his captain’s tropical shorts. “Gavin hates his legs,” Patti, 46, reveals. “They are very short. He always said if he had long legs, he would have been a star 20 years ago.”

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