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A chat with Ted Lange…? You got it!

On Sunday, April 25th, TV Land will be airing its annual celebration of classic television known as the TV Land Awards. Our man Bob Westal was walking the red carpet for us, star-spotting and chatting with the occasional celebrity passerby, but as I’m ensconced here in Virginia, I have to make do with phoners. It was hardly settling, however, to have the opportunity to chat with an iconic figure of ’70s and ’80 s television like Ted Lange. Although he’s arguably best known for his role as bartender Isaac Washington on “The Love Boat,” it’s far from the only item on his resume, so I made sure to brush up on his list of credits on IMDb before getting on the phone with him. This proved to be a wise move, as it resulted in stories of a Shakespearean production and tales of working on “Wattstax,” “Friday Foster,” “Record City,” “Mr. T and Tina,” and, yes, “That’s My Mama,” too. But, of course, there was still plenty of “Love Boat” banter as well, since it was that very show which led Lange to attend the TV Land Awards and reunite with his former crewmates…sorry, I meant castmates.

Come aboard as we set sail for…

Ted Lange: Hi, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Ted, how’s it going?

TL: Good! How are you doing?

BE: I’m doing well. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

TL: What city are you in?

BE: I’m in Norfolk, Virginia. Where are you? Somewhere on the east coast, I guess, given how early it is.

TL:West coast, actually!

BE: Wow, then it’s really, really early there. Are you in California?

TL: Yessir. Los Angeles, California, city of the angels! (Laughs)

BE: Well, one of our writers here at Bullz-Eye was actually at the TV Land Awards the other night…

TL: Oh, really?

BE: He did the red carpet thing, and then he headed into the bloggers’ room, so he wasn’t in there with the action, per se, but he said it was a good time.

TL: It was a good time. It was a lot of fun.

BE: So was the entire cast there for the reunion?

TL: Well, Gavin MacLeod (Captain Stubing) had a back operation – he hurt himself, hurt a couple of his discs – so he wasn’t able to be there. We really missed him, because, you know, he’s the anchor of the show as the captain. So I called him up and talked to him to see how he was doing, and he was a little weak, but he was recuperating well. But everybody else was there, and they all brought their kids. Fred Grandy (Gopher) brought his daughter, I brought my son…it was a lot of fun.

BE: I was talking to Bob, our man who was there, and he was quite pleased that he’d gotten to talk to Bernie Kopell (Doc) on the carpet. So do you guys keep in touch aside from these occasional public reunions?

TL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We’re friends. The great thing about the show was that we made friendships, you know? We were acting buddies and everything, but off-camera…I mean, I learned how to play tennis on Bernie’s tennis court. I wasn’t really into tennis ‘til I met Bernie. He’s been a good pal, and Fred I see all the time whenever I’m out on the east coast, and Tewes…we’re all friends, and that was the wonderful ancillary benefit of the show: that we made some really lasting friendships.

BE: So how did you first come onto “The Love Boat”? Obviously, you were pretty well established on television already, thanks to “That’s My Mama.”

TL: Yeah, actually, I did two series. I did “That’s My Mama,” and I did another series called “Mr. T and Tina,” with Pat Morita. The network was aware of me, and they had done a pilot and…they had used the guy who played the postman on “That’s My Mama,” Teddy Wilson, on the first “Love Boat” pilot, and they didn’t like the chemistry of the crew, so when they did the second pilot, they kind of threw everybody out that wasn’t working and brought in some new guys…and they stuck with the “That’s My Mama” cast by bringing me in to play the bartender. (Laughs) So I was very fortunate!

BE: Had you worked with Aaron Spelling before “Love Boat”?

TL: No, I hadn’t, actually. Jimmy Komack was the producer of “Mr. T and Tina,” and he sat me down and said, “You’re going to go work for Aaron Spelling, so let me just tell you that he’s really a great guy.” And, of course, he was correct.

BE: You worked with no end of guest stars on the show, but do you have any particular favorites that leap out at you, either because you idolized them or because they were particularly fun to work with?

TL: Well, there were many memorable reasons for each guest star. Fred and I, we hung out with Brenda Vaccaro in Hong Kong, and we spent the day…sorry, we kidnapped Brenda Vaccaro… (Laughs) …and we had a wonderful time. Every time I bump into Brenda socially here in Los Angeles, she talks about the fun we had.

BE: You know, hand on heart, right before I got on the phone with you, I was transcribing the interview I did with Brenda. I just talked with her about her new HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack.”

TL: Oh, no! Really? (Laughs) Oh, man, the three of us – me, Fred, and Brenda – we laughed a lot. It’s stuff like that…I can remember being in Australia with Lloyd Bridges and meeting him and his lovely wife, Dorothy. And then seeing Jeff Bridges win the Oscar…? So, yeah, we got to meet people. And Bernie would give parties up at his house, so Lloyd would come up, and they had wonderful stories about Hollywood when they were starting out. So there were a lot of different things that we did, and we got a chance to meet people and kind of get schooled a little bit about what it was to be a professional, what people look for, and how to work it into your own game, so to speak.

BE: Obviously, some of the people who appeared on the show were in the twilight of their careers when they turned up. Was there anyone who you recall as being just so excited to have the chance to be back working?

TL: I’ll tell you what: Howard Keel did the show. I don’t know if you know Howard Keel, but it was a very interesting thing. He did the show, and he hadn’t acted in awhile, and they would do a scene, and the director would like it, and he’d say, “Cut! Print!” And I watched Howard, and he would kind of walk away shaking his head. So I went over to him and said, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “That wasn’t it. That wasn’t it. I…I could’ve done that better, but…” (Sighs) You know, television moves really fast. But by the end of the second day, he had gotten his chops back, and it was really funny to see, because then the director would say, “Cut, print,” and Howard went, “Yesssssss!” (Laughs) So it was stuff like that, seeing a guy who was rusty finally getting his gears rolling again. And from there, he went on to do “Dallas.” So he got his chops back on our show! There were things like that. Helen Hayes, who was the first lady of the theater, I got to act with her, and that was really a kick because…I wanted to call my English teacher, who spoke very highly of her and Maurice Evans when I was coming up as a kid in high school. And there I was, actually getting to act with them! We had the Mills family: Juliet Mills, Hayley Mills, and John Mills. Vincent Price sat down and told me stories about doing theater with black performers back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s.

BE: Wow.

TL: Yeah! I mean, it was amazing…and I got stories that you could never, ever get anywhere else. Jack Gilford knew Lena Horne when she was 16 years old, and he told me the story of meeting her parents and having them say, “Our daughter wants to be in show business. What do you think? What should we do?” So Jack Gilford was part of Lena Horne’s life. You’d never find that in any history book, but you find it when you actually meet people and talk to them. Fred and I had a thing called the Goldwyn Club, and we’d take the oldest stars out to lunch, and we’d buy them lunch and have them reminiscence, just because…in a sense, we were like history buffs, and we were in awe of some of the celebrities that we were getting a chance to work with. We wanted to know what it was like back in the early days. Phil Silvers told us that he used to go buy ice cream for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Can you imagine that? He said Bojangles would give him a couple of bucks and say, “I want you to get me a pint of vanilla ice cream, and get half a pint for yourself.” Phil Silvers was Bill Robinson’s errand boy! He’d go off and get Bojangles some ice cream! (Laughs) You’re not going to find that stuff out without talking to these people, but here’s Phil Silvers telling me this story. That was the beauty of the show: if you had any sense of history, you got a chance to get it firsthand.

BE: Speaking of history, to speak of some of the other stuff that you’ve done in your career, you were in “Wattstax.”

TL: Yeah! I was! Along with the inimitable Richard Pryor, back in the day. I was telling somebody, “I always wanted to do a movie with Richard Pryor, I never did a movie with Richard Pryor,” and they said, “Ted, you did ‘Wattstax.’ Both of you guys are in that movie together.” I said, “Oh, yeah!” It’s not the same, though.

BE: What was that experience like? Because that was one of your first films, correct…?

TL: Actually, I did a couple of little things before that, but that was the first really major thing that I did. It was great, because it was all ad-libbed. Mel Stuart, who was the director, would ask us a question, and then we’d vamp on the question. So it was kind of fun. It was more me than it was doing a character. It was me reacting as Ted to different situations. The guy said, “We’re looking for some people who can talk on film and not have any reservations,” and I said, “Well, you came to the right guy! Turn on the camera, and let’s go, buddy!” (Laughs)

BE: What are your recollections about the concert itself?

TL: Well, I remember Isaac Hayes. It was an all-day affair, it was in a stadium, and I remember going to it, but…this was before I got in the film! Because it was in South Central, we went to the concert on our own, and later on… (Hesitates) I mean, we saw them filming at the time, but it wasn’t until later that I actually became a part of the movie! But it was a fabulous day. The whole city turned out for it…and, by that, I mean the population with color, with melanin in their skin. (Laughs) They turned out. That’s mainly who it was, because it was a celebration of Watts. It was our Woodstock, in a sense.

BE: I was fortunate enough to see Isaac Hayes in 2007 at the Hollywood Bowl, when they did a Stax reunion show.

TL: Did you really?

BE: I did. It was post-stroke, so he wasn’t 100% top of his game, but just being able to see that I saw in him in concert…

TL: Yeah, I know what you mean. I got to meet him…actually, I went to the American Film Institute, where I was studying film directing, ‘cause they have a lot of young directors coming through there, myself included, but they used to screen movies up there all the time. Every once in awhile, different celebrities would come up and watch the screenings. Robert Culp came up there. And I remember sitting up there, watching “How the West Was Won” with Isaac Hayes. I mean, that was a thrill.

BE: Talking about directing, I know you’ve done some, but one thing that particularly caught my eye on IMDb was that you had directed and played the title role in a version of “Othello.”

TL: Yeah! What I did was…I was directing Lynn Redgrave on “The Love Boat,” and we started talking, and we talked about the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which I had heard of but had never gone to. And she encouraged me to check it out, and I did, and I found out that they had a special program in the summertime for Americans, but I had to get a letter of recommendation. So I got a letter of recommendation from Lynn Redgrave, went over there, studied Shakespeare, and the professor over there encouraged me to do “Othello.” So when I got back to L.A., about a year and a half later, I got the money together and did a production of “Othello.” And in the middle of doing the stage version, I came into a windfall of some money, so we made it into a movie…and, actually, everyone that’s in the movie was in the stage play.

BE: Nice.

TL: Yeah, it was really good. And I told the guys…I’ll never forget this…I sat them all down, and I said, “Look, I’ve got an opportunity to do this as a movie, so I just wanted to know if everybody’s on board with that idea.” And they said, “Aw, man, you’re not gonna make this into a movie.” And I said, “What do you mean I’m not going to make it into a movie?” They said, “You know how often we do plays and somebody says, ‘We’re gonna turn this into a movie’?” So I said, “Oh, yeah, I never thought of it like that. Well, this time, it’s gonna be true!” And it was, and we did.

BE: You’ve obviously directed a lot of TV episodes. Do any of the experiences particularly stand out as highlights?

TL: Yeah, I had a couple of really fun things. I mean, my very first directorial endeavor was with a “Love Boat,” and I got to direct Susan Strasberg. I’ll never forget it, because her father (Lee) was, like, the patron saint of method acting, and I was really worried about it and kind of nervous about directing her because I’m thinking, “She probably knows everything about acting. What can I ever say to Susan Strasberg?” But it was the very first day and the very first shot, and she did something that made me go, “Well, let me go over and tell her that, actually, she should do this and this and that.” So I went over to her, and I said, “Listen, Susan, why don’t you try this on this part and that on that part?” And it seemed like an eternity when she answered, because I didn’t know if she was going to say, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” or, “That’s brilliant,” or what! (Laughs) But she looked at me and said, “Okay.” And after that, I was cool. I didn’t have a problem directing anybody after that, ‘cause if Susan Strasberg can say “okay” after I give her direction, then I’m not intimidated by anybody! (Laughs) And I worked with and directed some really big stars. Like, I directed Milton Berle on “Fantasy Island,” who could be pretty rough on directors…but I had the Susan Strasberg experience in the back of my mind, so me and Milton, we got along great. (Laughs) It was really a fun time.

BE: Tell me about working on “Friday Foster,” because I’m looking at that cast, and I’m, like, “Good grief!”

TL: Yeah, “Friday Foster” was one of my first gigs ever, and…yeah, man, wasn’t that amazing? You’ve got Pam Grier, Carl Weathers…the people who were in that, it was pretty amazing. (Writer’s note: Also in the cast were Jim Backus, Eartha Kitt, Scatman Crothers, Godfrey Cambridge, Yaphet Kotto, and Jason Bernard, who you’d absolutely recognize if you saw him.) But that was, like, one of the first things I ever did, and…you know, I’m from Oakland, California, and when you grow up there, you don’t have a shot in hell in being in the movies, but there I was in this movie with all of these people. I mean, Eartha Kitt…? I’ll never forget that. I had a great time doing that.

BE: It might be a film that you’d put into the “blaxploitation” genre, but you look at that cast, and…I mean, you might not call it a powerhouse cast, but those are all immediately familiar faces.

TL: Well, you know, the reason they called them “black exploitation” was that there was no work for black actors. I mean, they had the big studio pictures, but those pictures…they cost a lot of money to make, and they weren’t cognizant of black performers at that time, and the only way that we got to ply our craft and learn acting in front of the camera was through these other, cheaper movies. So what they did was…it was “black exploitation” because they made these movies at cut-rate prices, and the money that they made off of them was amazing, because the audiences really wanted to see movies with themselves in it. So that’s what the exploitation was: they made them as cheaply as possible, not the best writing, not even the best directing, but it was a chance for us to perform, and they made grand theft money on those movies. So they really exploited us, but by the same token, the studios didn’t use us. They didn’t hire us. I mean, you had a couple of guys. You had Sidney Poitier and couple of other guys, and that was it on the studio side. But where we learned our acting chops and where we got ourselves together was in those low-budget black movies.

BE: Another IMDb discovery that I found, and then found the YouTube clip to back it up, was a movie called “Record City.”

TL: (Horrified gasp) Is that on YouTube?

BE: Well, the trailer is, anyway.

TL: No! You know, Rick Dees was at the TV Land Awards, and he and I were talking there, ‘cause we did that movie together. He’s in “Record City,” too.

BE: Oh, yeah, he’s very prominent in the trailer.

TL: Yeah! Well, you know, he was a big deal at the time. He’d come to L.A. from…well, he’d come from somewhere else, anyway, and he was making a big splash in L.A. So we were laughing together, and somebody said, “How do you two know each other?” And he said, “We did a movie together, and we hope that nobody ever sees it.” (Laughs) And now you’re telling me that the trailer for it is on YouTube!

BE: Oh, man, I put the trailer on my Facebook page, in conjunction with knowing that I was doing this interview, and the general response from everyone was basically, “Oh, my…”

TL: (Laughs) Yeah! You know, they had every second banana that was in television or movies in that film. I remember that Ruth Buzzi was in the makeup chair, and she had to do a lot of makeup ‘cause they had to do some kind of special makeup for her, and I walked in and…I just wanted to mess with her, so her makeup was half on and half off, and I said, “Ruth, the assistant director’s looking for you.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, they’ve got to reshoot that stuff you just did.” (Laughs) She got so mad! I said, “Oh, no, no, I’m just kidding! I’m just kidding!” “That’s not funny!” I said, “Well, you should’ve seen your face, then, ‘cause it was hysterical!” We had fun on that movie, but…you know what they did? They shot that movie on tape. This was back in the day, and they shot it on tape, and it just didn’t…that was an early experiment. It would be like doing it in digital today. They shot it on tape, but it was so experimental that it just didn’t look right, and they were trying to master that. Yeah, “Record City,” man… (Starts laughing again)

BE: I’d think that the music licensing alone would keep that off DVD, so you’re probably safe.

TL: Yeah, well, let’s keep our fingers crossed!

BE: So I mentioned it in passing earlier, but how did you enjoy working on “That’s My Mama”? You know, I think that show has been in syndication ever since it originally aired.

TL: You might be right! “That’s My Mama” was, for me, a great learning experience, because I wasn’t the star of the show, but I was there every week, and I got to see the politics of working on television as well as the art of trying to make a show work and be funny. “That’s My Mama” was how I got my feet wet, so that was a wonderful training ground for me.

BE: And from that into “Mr. T and Tina.” I know it didn’t last long, but I would’ve thought that it would’ve had some considerable promotional heft behind it, since Pat Morita was just coming off of “Happy Days” at the time.

TL: Well, you know, that was the first show canceled that year. (Laughs) We shot eight shows, they showed…I think four before they canceled it. It was on for a month, and that was it. Over and out. But, actually, that was the show that got me “The Love Boat,” because the network saw me do that. The writing was not as strong as it could’ve been, but I got my laughs whenever I came on, so they just took me from that and put me in “The Love Boat,” sight unseen. No screen test, no reading or anything. I just went on television.

BE: So to bring it back to “The Love Boat,” what do you think of when you think of the show?

TL: You know, I really enjoyed the show when I got to travel. That was the fun of being on our particular show, because we went all over the world. You know, we went from Hong Kong to Egypt to Australia to Fiji. I really enjoyed meeting the superstars that came in, acting with them, and seeing the world. I’ll never forget, like, John Astin, who was on “The Addams Family,” he and I hung out in Egypt. My kids asked me, “Were you ever in Egypt?” “Yeah, I was with John Astin!” (Laughs) Me, John Astin, and Fred Grandy, we’d go out exploring in Cairo. It’s stuff like that, where we were having such a good time, like with Brenda Vaccaro in Hong Kong. It was a great time.

BE: Do you enjoy doing the callbacks to the character on various shows?

TL: Oh, yeah. That’s not a problem, because Isaac was a loveable character. I don’t mind that at all. I know some people don’t want to see their characters again. Once they’re done with them, they’re done. But that’s not the case for me. People have very fond memories of Isaac. If they’re sober.

BE: And that begs a question I meant to ask earlier: did you ever have to take a bartending class?

TL: I did, actually! If you ever watch the show, in the first season, you can really see that I mix very few drinks. (Laughs) After the show got established, though, I decided that, for the second season, I would at least know how to make a drink and garnish the glass properly. So that’s what I did: I went to a bartending school, and they gave me a license. And they also gave me a license in the name of Isaac Washington, so I put that up on the set. (Laughs)

BE: Whose idea was the double-point trademark?

TL: That was just an accident. The guy said, “Look into the lens,” and I said, “Well, why am I looking into the lens? I’m making a drink!” And the guy says, “’Cause you’re getting a paycheck.” And the double point came out of nowhere. (Laughs) I don’t know where it came from!

BE: I don’t know if you watch “Futurama” at all…

TL: Yeah, sure!

BE: Okay, so you’ve seen the iZac, then. (Laughs)

TL: Yeah, I saw that. And, actually, I got credit on IMDb for the voice, but I didn’t do the voice! But I figured, “Ah, I’m not going to argue with them.” But I was mad ‘cause they didn’t ask me to do the voice! But recently I did “The Cleveland Show,” and at least they asked me to do the voice for that, so I got to go in and get animated. (Laughs) That was fun.

BE: Lastly, I’m just curious about something. Your biggest part, or at least your most recognizable role, was one that you did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. How do you go about maintaining your career today? Do you actively look for work, or does it come looking for you?

TL: Well, you know, the thing about show business is that a job can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s somebody that remembers your character that’s at an advertising agency and wants you to promote Bud Light… (Laughs) …or it can be where they’re doing a joke on a sitcom and they want to do something about bartending and remember you. Or sometimes you just go in and audition for a part along with 200 other guys, and they pick you. So the job can come from anywhere. I mean, that’s kind of the thing that you live with as an actor. The thing that I’m most grateful about is that I love the theater, and I was able to maintain myself and not go crazy or end up on drugs because I love doing theater. I actually segued into playwriting, and I’ve written 23 plays. I’m going to be doing a play this summer here in Los Angeles called “Let Freedom Ring,” which is a new play that I’ve written. So my saving grace is that, as well as being on film, I have an affinity for the theater and being on stage. Sometimes they don’t want you on television or you don’t get the part in the movie, but I know that I can always go to the theater and ply my craft.

BE: Well, I think I’ve bent your ear enough, but I hope I gave you a variety of questions that you haven’t gotten recently.

TL: Yeah, you hit some stuff that people don’t usually ask. That was really appealing.

BE: I figured you’d been buried in “Love Boat” questions, but you’ve done some really interesting stuff, so it was nice to be able to ask you about it.

TL: Yeah, that was nice, thanks.

BE: Good talking to you, Ted!

TL: You, too!

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