Love Boat in China

UPDATED 06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

Welcome the visit of Love Boat to China!" proclaimed a fluttering red banner as the 502-foot Pearl of Scandinavia wended its way past sampans, freighters and startled Chinese sailors into its berth in murky Shanghai harbor. With that fractured greeting, the cast and crew of ABC's Top-10-rated Ship of Shlock—plus 236 paying passengers—got their first glimpse of the People's Republic after a two-day cruise from Hong Kong to the spectacularly polluted Huangpu River. It was the start of 14 days of filming a Love Boat episode in Shanghai and Peking—and unlike most American TV critics, the Chinese seemed ready to lap it up.

"This is a powerfully beautiful thing," exclaimed misty-eyed guest star Linda Evans as she gazed upon a welcoming regiment of 200 9-year-old boys and girls waving silk scarves and plastic flowers in unison. "Children are our hope for peace."

Beneath such high-minded tributes to world harmony, however, lurked a near epidemic of celebrity squabbling more suited to a back lot in Burbank than to the Land of Yin and Yang. "It was a miniature World War III," summed up executive producer Doug Cramer, describing the star infighting of the first 24 hours of the trip. The trouble came over the assignment of berths for the cruise. It began when Susan Anton was given a spacious cabin with picture windows on the topside "skydeck," despite the absence of diminutive paramour Dudley Moore, who stayed home to practice piano for a Carnegie Hall concert. "When you're a star," explained Cramer, "looking at another star with a luscious room that you don't have can be an emotional shock."

Indeed, Love Boat Captain Gavin McLeod was so unhappy with his sub-skydeck berth that he refused to unpack until a top official of Pearl Cruises, which owns the liner, offered to surrender his own skydeck cabin. Guest star Erin Moran was reduced to tears before she was given a new cabin complete with bath. "It's the first time I've spoken up for myself," said Moran, 22. "I was being an adult, finally, and I felt damned good about it."

Only cast member Ted Lange, the sole black actor for thousands of nautical miles around, seemed unconcerned. "For me, the right neighborhood was never a question," he shrugged. "So I don't care about cabins. I'm always surprised and delighted to get one at all."

It was a shaky start for the ground-breaking Pearl voyage, a politically delicate project that Cramer had twice feared might sink—once following the defection of the tennis player Hu Na to the U.S. last July, and again after a Hong Kong newspaper editor in Peking was sentenced to 10 years for spying just six days before the intended sailing. The $12 million journey—for which ABC paid a flat $10 million and the Love Boat production company the remainder—will yield three two-hour episodes filmed in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan. All are scheduled to air next season.

Fortunately, the atmosphere mellowed a day out of Hong Kong, doubtless aided by a cavalcade of star perks which lessened the pain of cabin fever, bouts of seasickness and an un-Love Boar-like absence of double beds. Guest star salaries of up to $50,000 comforted John Forsythe, Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Lee Majors. In addition, the entire cast and crew received $100 a day for expenses, as well as red-carpet treatment from the Chinese welcoming delegation, who, confessed Cramer, "had been made aware of the pecking order, Hollywood-wise, of our group."

Less exalted tourists, however, who had paid between $3,370 and $8,550 for the cruise, discovered that being on the Love Boat was a mixed blessing. Scheduled shipboard activities were shifted or dropped to accommodate shooting schedules. Exasperating slowdowns to reduce the ship engines vibration were followed by speedups to make up for lost time. The worst frustration came when more than 100 passengers were forced to spend two nights in a flea-bag hotel in Tianjin, China's third largest city, after the Love Boat cast and crew gobbled up Peking's best accommodations.

But while some fumed, others remained gripped by euphoria. Utah travel agent Athleen Fishburn, a middle-aged Love Boat fan who had taken the show's cruise to Acapulco last January just to meet Engelbert Humperdinck, was delighted to be back for another cruise. "I felt a thrill flow right through me when Engelbert was on the Love Boat," she enthused. "The same vibes went to my toes when they told me John Forsythe would be on this trip. He was the determining factor that decided me to come." One 90-year-old man who came aboard in a wheelchair said he had made the trip solely to meet the Love Boat regulars, while other passengers slipped briefly into the spotlight by appearing as Love Boat extras. Autograph hounds and camera buffs prowled the decks in hopes of waylaying an unwary star.

The stars' attempts to mingle with the natives were far more frustrating. In Shanghai, a city teeming with bicycles, motorized three-wheelers and pedestrians, Ursula Andress found herself gawked at by hundreds of Chinese as she filmed a scene in front of the Friendship Store, a shopping mart for foreigners. But when she attempted to recruit several to pose with her for photographers, they recoiled as if she were diseased—having been warned by Chinese security guards to stand back while these strange visitors engaged in their unfathomable behavior. "I was frustrated," said Andress later. "I regret only that I couldn't get in touch with the real people."

Linda Evans, who toured the city in a blue-gray Toyota, fared little better, joining a group of old men doing tai chi-exercises in the park, only to back off when the crowd giggled politely at her missteps. She then launched into an impromptu speech about loving Shanghai, evoking only stares of incomprehension. Nevertheless, Evans, who had toured Japan two years ago, was undaunted. "The Orient has changed my life," she said, lighting incense at Shanghai's Jade Buddha Temple. "My home used to be country French. Now it's country Oriental."

As for Forsythe, who won the cast's vote for Best Costume on Oriental Night in his guise as a wispy-bearded, ancient mandarin, he was more smitten with China than with its cuisine, even comparing the food unfavorably to the menu at Ruby Foo's in New York's Chinatown. He found some aspects of the country intriguing. "Without wanting to live here," he allowed, "I can appreciate what the Chinese have achieved—and the childlike quality of the people."

In Peking the Love Boat crowd was similarly isolated. The Jianguo Hotel, not far from the Forbidden City, with its high-ceilinged plastic lobby, coffee shop, continental restaurant and air-conditioned, carpeted, electrically curtained rooms, could have been plucked whole and entire from Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Unlike Shanghai's curious throngs, the crowds remained respectfully aloof, except for one group of young people who rushed toward a startled Susan Anton with a yelp of excitement. They turned out to be Japanese tourists, who recognized her from TV commercials. Lee Majors, who spent one night partying with the Marines at the U.S. Embassy, tired quickly of the sightseeing. "You've seen one panda, you've seen 'em all," he yawned after 10 minutes at the Peking Zoo. "I'm ready to go back to the hotel and go swimming." Evincing little interest in Chinese culture, he spent a day trying to secure tickets for Britain's touring Royal Ballet. "I really wanted to see some round-eyed blondes for a change," he explained.

After completion of shooting in Peking, the cast and crew said their final goodbyes. Linda Evans jetted off to Arizona to film the CBS-TV movie Gambler II with Kenny Rogers. Lee Majors was bound for a celebrity tennis tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while the Love Boat's regulars headed for Japan, where the series had just been taken off the air. Joked Fred Grandy, whose American-style forth-rightness had not been tempered by his Oriental sojourn: "I can't wait to get to that country to kick ass."

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