Iowa-Born Actor Fred Grandy, Alias Love Boat's Gopher Smith, Plots a Course for Washington
12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Burl "Gopher" Smith, the baby-faced, puckish purser of television's Love Boat, delivered an emotional farewell speech last month to the ship's crew in the cocktail lounge of the Pacific Princess (actually, Stage II of the Warner's studio in Hollywood). In what will be the final episode of the season, scheduled to air next spring, Gopher announces that his cruising days are through; he's going off to manage a hotel on an isolated South Pacific island. The episode is titled Mr. Smith Goes to Mini Kulu.
The show might more accurately be called Mr. Grandy Goes to Washington, at least if actor Fred Grandy's ship comes in. Grandy, who has played Gopher since Love Boat set sail nine years ago, officially announces this week his Republican Party candidacy for northwestern Iowa's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He's throwing his hat in the ring in Sioux City, where he recently bought a three-bedroom house a few blocks from the fieldstone home on Country Club Drive where he grew up. He is selling his Venice, Calif. house and giving up a more than $1 million a year acting job to try to win a position that pays $75,100, or about three weeks of his annual Love Boat salary.
Grandy's campaign would be smooth sailing if the election were held aboard the Love Boat. "I wish I could vote for him, and I'm a Democrat," says Lauren Tewes, the ship's former recreation director, who helped Grandy stuff envelopes for his first fund raiser this fall. "He's a hard worker and a logical thinker." Adds Gavin MacLeod, also known as Capt. Stubing, who gave Grandy his first campaign contribution ($1,000): "He's very knowledgeable. I think he's got a darn good shot." (Grandy has also received checks from Linda Evans, Cesar Romero and Anne Francis.)
Six-term incumbent Democrat Berkley Bedell has sent out a newsletter accusing state Republicans of importing a Hollywood star, but when it comes to Iowa, no one can accuse Grandy of being just off the boat. His great-grandfather William Grandy served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Sioux City a century ago. His grandfather founded the Sioux City insurance business that Fred's father carried on. When Grandy was 12, his father died of a heart attack, and his mother died of an aneurysm a year later. He was raised by his mother's best friend, Margaret Avery, a widow who later married Chauncey Heffernan, the doctor who had treated Fred's father.
In 1962, at age 14, Grandy was sent to the prestigious boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he became David Eisenhower's roommate. He was best man at David's 1968 marriage to Julie Nixon. After graduating with honors from Harvard in 1970, Grandy landed a job as a speechwriter for then Congressman Wiley Mayne (R-Iowa). As Julie and David's friend, Grandy went to ball games with them and Richard Nixon, and sailed on the presidential yacht, Sequoia. He was considering a job with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) when a faint odor of the illegality that would become the Watergate scandal drove him away. "My shrewdest political move at that time was to say no to associating with that committee," Grandy says now.
He really wanted to be an actor, anyway. At Harvard he had been a member of "The Proposition" improvisational group, along with Jane Curtin. In 1971 he rejoined the group, which had moved to New York. There he did a couple of off-Broadway shows and was noticed by Norman Lear's organization, which gave him the semiregular role of Adrianne Barbeau's boyfriend on Maude for a year. After some meaningful but unremunerative stage work in New York, he moved to California in 1975 with his then wife, Jan Gough. (They'd married in 1969 when he was at Harvard and she at Radcliffe. They were divorced in 1983. Their children, Marya, 14, and Charlie, 11, divide their time between their parents.) After another lean year doing shows that sank and pilots that didn't fly, he landed on Love Boat.
It was on a Love Boat location shoot in Kusadasi, Turkey in 1982 that Grandy's life changed course. After a party, he was riding in a cab back to their hotel with fellow cast members Ted Lange and Tewes when someone lit a cigarette and the hydrogen-filled balloons they were carrying exploded. The explosion blew the skin off Grandy's hands and part of his face. He thought he was going to die or, at best, survive paralyzed and disfigured. "It made me wonder what I was doing with my life. When you confront mortality, the trivial business of life is shown for what it is.
"I'm convinced some of us live our lives in cycles," he says, "and that accident was the beginning of knowing this cycle was coming to an end. I don't like the life-style of uncaring leisure you have in California. I felt as if I was having my retirement and would get a job later. It's so neat out here in Iowa. I feel so comfortable being back. It's so un-L.A."
Yet his L.A. TV experience is proving a distinct advantage on the hustings. "If there were no Gopher, there would be no Fred Grandy for Congress," he acknowledges. Even wearing a red-and-white cap lettered "Woodbury County Pork Producers," Grandy is instantly recognized. Teenage girls scream, matrons beam and grown men ask for his autograph. According to a survey by his campaign manager, 85 percent of the district's electorate recognizes Fred Grandy's name. Advertising sufficient to win that name recognition might cost another politician the whole half-million dollars Grandy expects to spend on his campaign. "He has some name ID but he has to translate that into ideas," says Des Moines Register political writer David Yepsen. "Iowans are not going to vote for Gopher; maybe they'll vote for Fred Grandy. So far he has done a good job convincing people he is not an airhead."
"Wouldn't you know I'd be running as a Republican in a state that I've read has the lowest popularity ratings for President Reagan? This is the toughest state in the union for Republicans," he says. The Administration is blamed for the economic troubles of Iowans, who were furious when Reagan quipped at this year's Washington Gridiron dinner, "Let's keep the grain and export the farmers."
"Iowa is in terrible shape," Grandy observes. "Land values have slumped, farmers have been hurt by the strong dollar overseas and by high interest rates at home. Agricultural states are the first casualty of the deficit." Grandy, who calls himself "a compassionate conservative," believes that price supports to farmers should be slowly reduced and ultimately eliminated to restore a free market system. He favors a program of government credit and loan guarantees to help farmers get out of debt. The incumbent, Bedell, has proposed legislation that would enable farmers to vote for export subsidies and higher price supports in exchange for reducing production.
"If you give the farmers credit, they can still compete in the marketplace," Grandy says. "We gave Chrysler credit, and they repaid their debt. Farmers are one of the best loan risks in America." But Grandy is the first to admit he doesn't have many of the answers. "I tell people I can't save every farm. I think it's cruel to promise something that's not going to happen."
Whether Grandy will be cast for his Washington gig is, at this early date, an open question. But then there's no telling how far an actor can go in American politics.