In TV’s current stormy climate, new series have been sinking as fast as restless viewers and reviewers can torpedo them. Of the 30-plus launched in the past year, such entries as Best of the West, King’s Crossing, Code Red, Maggie and Open All Night have foundered, and only Falcon Crest has wound up among the 20 top-rated shows. So all the more impressive is the survival of that tub of schmaltz, The Love Boat, which ABC has signed for two more seasons. What critics dismissed as an oh-so-saccharine ship for fools when it appeared in 1977 now draws an average audience of 33 million—not hugely behind top-rated Dallas’ 41 million. One week this year Love Boat was No. 4 in the Nielsen ratings, behind only Dallas, 60 Minutes and Three’s Company.
How to account for the longevity of the series, whose formula calls for the resolution of three romantic tangles (usually including one farce, one straight comedy, one tear-jerker) per 60-minute show? Comedian Dick Shawn, a guest star, found a simple answer: “If Disney did a porno flick, the result would be Love Boat.” Bernie Kopell, the skirt-chasing “Doc” Adam Bricker on the series’ cruise-liner set, has a loftier notion: “It’s a fantasy that transports viewers out of their very real problems—crime, inflation, pollution, overpopulation. It’s evocative of the Depression, when people would go to a show to lift their spirits.”
Maybe. But doubtless one reason for the show’s success is just the amiability of its good-guy regulars: captain Gavin Macleod, bartender Ted Lange, cruise director Lauren Tewes, yeoman-purser Fred Grandy and, not least of all, Kopell. The Doc has emerged from the show, at 49, as something of a heartthrob, a fact, he admits, “that still makes my head reverberate.”
It should. On Love Boat Kopell is the four-times-divorced M.D. who is forever plotting to put the make on the female passengers he greets at the start of each show. In real life he’s reticent with women; he’s the sort who admits that his first attempt at a kiss, as a tremulous Brooklyn kid at summer camp, was a downright “trauma.” He’s also stuck on his wife of seven years, Yolanda Veloz, 34, a California beauty who quit TV for a career in real estate. And on the trips that the 150-member Love Boat cast and crew take on cruise liners to shoot part of their 25 annual episodes, Bernie brings Yolanda along. “It’s dangerous for people not to be with each other,” he says.
Kopell, the cast cutup, can be a hazard all by himself on the cruises. Ted Lange remembers one night on last year’s trip to Australia when he got “a wee tipsy” with Bernie and Fred Grandy: “We were talking about old movies that had people falling downstairs. So we decided to see how it would work falling upstairs. It was much harder.” On this year’s voyage, a 54-day May-June jaunt to the Mediterranean, Doc really got to play a doctor. During a call at the port of Kusadasi in Turkey, where Love Boat is popular, an outdoor fete was held for the visitors. Suddenly some hydrogen-filled balloons exploded, leaving Grandy with second-degree burns on his hands. Kopell reports that he and others “stayed with Fred all night to keep him happy and stimulated—there’s a critical time for a burned person when his body can go into shock.” Grandy soon recovered—though he played a few Love Boat scenes with bandaged hands.
Ashore or afloat, Kopell’s favorite Rx is his wife. Though Yolanda is more of a casting director’s idea of a sex object than Bernie, she’s “not interested in show business,” he says. After five years appearing in series like McCloud and Baretta, she traded her SAG card for a real estate license in 1975. She bought the eight L.A.-area houses (seven of them rented out) which she and Bernie own and earns fat commissions selling prime properties to clients like comedian Jerry Van Dyke and director John (Escape From New York) Carpenter. “Yolanda’s a magician,” says Ted Lange. “My wife, Sherryl, and I told her what we wanted, and in less than a month we were closing the deal.” Bernie’s happy too: “Whatever I’ve made has grown because of Yolanda’s financial ability.”
The son of a jeweler, Bernie grew up a loner. “Because I stayed by myself,” he says, “I became interested in other people’s lives and found I could duplicate their mannerisms.” At 13, while in summer camp, he was drawn to acting. “It was a tremendous opportunity not to be me,” he explains. After studying Shakespeare and Shaw at New York University, he started performing at an upstate theater. He first went to sea as a librarian (“Nobody else wanted the job”) on the battleship Iowa. When he got out of the Navy two years later, in 1957, his actor friend James Drury steered him to L.A. Bernie soon found himself hawking vacuum cleaners and driving cabs for a living.
His first movie role came a year later when one of his fares, producer Dick Einfeld, gave him a two-line part in The Oregon Trail; by then Kopell was broke and living on an L.A. estate in a tool shed “small enough to heat with a hot plate.” In 1962 he won work on The Brighter Day and The Jack Benny Show, but the next year saw the end of his brief marriage to actress CeeCee Whitney. He would later win roles as the supercilious German agent on Don Adams’ spy spoof Get Smart and as Mario Thomas’ neighbor Jerry on That Girl. By 1964 Kopell was finding success “difficult to deal with,” as he puts it. In fact, he temporarily put aside Science of Mind, a self-help, positive-thinking philosophy he embraced in 1960, and started psychotherapy.
Gradually his life turned around. In 1973 he met Yolanda on the NBC series Needles and Pins. He played a hotshot clothing salesman, she a model. They dated, but it was almost a year before marriage was mentioned. Then one night he cracked, “So many of our friends are getting divorced, why should we screw up a good thing?” Her reply: “I hate you, Bernie Kopell.” Suddenly he realized that where there’s hate, there’s real passion. They wed soon after.
Yolanda was the “very shy” daughter of the ballroom stars Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza, who were lionized on a 1939 LIFE cover as America’s “greatest dancing couple.” She made her own dance debut at 7 with her 9-year-old brother, Tony. After graduating in 1970 from California State University, Northridge, as a speech major, Yolanda’s affluent world crashed. Her parents, separated since she was 10, not only divorced but lost almost everything in a failed chain of dance studios. “All the money left town,” she says. “My parents had more talent than business sense.” Then her oldest brother, Nick, died of cancer at 26. Yolanda spent a year in social work in East L.A.’s Mexican-American community. “I loved it,” she says, “but I became so involved, I couldn’t sleep.” Tragedy struck again in 1972, when Tony committed suicide at 27, after the death of his wife in a still-unexplained homicide. Yolanda plunged into TV acting, but found it hollow: “I always played the hooker who gets killed off in the first scene.” She credits Bernie with her success in business: “My lack of confidence was so strong, he had to keep telling me to go out and try.”
Their San Fernando Valley house sports a pool, a tennis court and an oversize hot tub in the bathroom off the master bedroom. Though pals like James Franciscus and Dick Van Patten often drop by for tennis, they no longer get Yolanda to play what she calls “mixed troubles” with Bernie. “I kept giving her little suggestions like, ‘Bend your knees, lardass,’ ” he explains.
Bernie and Yolanda devour health foods and dine two or three nights a week on just popcorn with Parmesan cheese. “You can eat all you want and it doesn’t show on the scale,” he explains. They’re disappointed at not having had children and are thinking about adopting. Otherwise their life is smooth sailing—thanks in large part to Yolanda’s touch with both bucks and Bernie. “I’m aware that actors have times of highs and lows,” she says. “I wanted to make our financial life secure. Now Bernie will never have to take a job he doesn’t want.”