The Love Boat’s Bernie Kopell on being a ship’s doctor, a chimpanzee spy, and a dad
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Bernie Kopell, who’s best known for playing bespectacled lothario Adam “Doc” Bricker on The Love Boat, started his career as a comic character actor, working on sitcoms like Bewitched, My Favorite Martian, and That Girl. Kopell could play ordinary joes or outrageous characters with broad accents, as he did in his most famous non-Love Boat role, the villainous “Vice President Of Public Relations And Terror” Count Von Siegfried on the spy spoof Get Smart. Kopell then did a spoof of a spoof, reuniting with some of the Get Smart team for the children’s show Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, which used live chimpanzees and the voices of Kopell and others to keep making fun of the spy genre. The complete Lancelot Link is now available on DVD.
Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp (1970)—“Baron Von Butcher” (voice)
Get Smart (1965-1970)—“Count Von Siegfried”
Bernie Kopell: It all started with James Bond. And as a result of James Bond, we had The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which some of you historians may remember. Then it evolved into the satire on these shows, which was Get Smart, on which I was lucky enough to play Siegfried, at the age of 24. I was the happiest guy. [Laughs.] I was so happy to play that comedy of anger and contempt and loathing. Then I was sitting around with the writers one day, and I said, “Well, what are we gonna do now?” I’d met Mike Marmer on The Steve Allen Show. I did 30 shows with Steve Allen, and this was the secret Steve Allen Show, because I think nobody but my mother ever saw it. And Mike said, “Well, let’s do Get Smart with monkeys.” And these lunatic writers said, “What an idea! Okay, let’s do it with chimpanzees.” So they got these chimpanzees, they trained them to do some choreography, and of course, the chimps had to speak. Of course, we know that chimps don’t speak, but they had to find a way to train them to open and close their mouths as though they were speaking. Some preferred peanut butter, some preferred chewing gum, and some preferred other things in their mouths, so that their mouths would go up and down. They wrote these brilliant and hilarious lines, supposedly coming out of the mouths of these chimpanzees.
The chimpanzee that played Lancelot Link—who was essentially a chimpanzee that was supposed to be the same as Agent 86, Don Adams on Get Smart—is still alive. He’s still alive, and he’s residing in the Wildlife Waystation. That is something that Martine Colette originated about 38 years ago. She takes care of animals who people might’ve thought, “Well, I’ll get this little miniature bear, and to make him safe, I’ll pull out his teeth and pull out his claws.” Ultimately, people would get bored with these animals, and they say, “Well, I don’t want him anymore,” which is very cruel. But Martine would take these animals into the Wildlife Waystation, and this is where Lancelot Link, still alive, is residing and living out his life. She does this independently, Martine. She’s one of the great heroines, a saintly human being to do this. I realize there are starving people, but at the same time, there are starving animals, and they share our planet.
So, a tremendous portion of the sales of Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp is going to the Wildlife Waystation. This is why we’re doing a big push now, for Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. It’s remastered on DVD, and it’s just awfully funny. It’s awfully funny to see these chimps supposedly speaking. Baron Von Butcher is my co-relative; he’s the Siegfried of this, and his organization is C.H.U.M.P. He leads the Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plans, an evil league bent on world conquest. And assisting the Baron is the band of bad apes, including Creto, Wang Fu, The Duchess, Dragon Lady, Ali Assa Seen, and Dr. Strangemind. [Laughs.] All of these nasty chimpanzees; they have attitudes. I don’t know how the trainers got them to do this, but they did it, and it’s on the DVD. It’s funny, funny stuff.
The A.V. Club: Before Lancelot Link, you had done Get Smart for several years—
BK: Get Smart was from ’65 to ’70, and I think we started Lancelot Link in 1970, because people get restless. Creative people get restless, if I dare call myself a creative person. It’s so much fun when you do these things, and then you’re sort of sitting around when it’s over, and you say, “Well, gee whiz, I wish I was doing something.” Hopefully, you can come up with something that’s fun for you, and that’s what we came up with.
We just laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. Of course, you have to cut out the laughing and be seriously nasty as Baron Von Butcher. Then we had Lancelot; you would think that Lancelot would speak as Don Adams spoke, but Lancelot spoke as Humphrey Bogart. It’s just fun, and we’re happy to be sharing this with kids and grownups, because with the economy today, and with all of the wars going on, I think we need some laughs. We need some laughs to cheer us up. Lancelot Link, on DVD. It’s from Film Chest Media Group, the genre is television comedy/family. The suggested retail price is very reasonable, $24.98, and you can get a hold of that on your computer, and enjoy this amazingly funny thing. I’ve got two boys, ages 14 and 9—I’m gonna be 78 next month—and I know my kids are just gonna love this. Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. Three discs. Yay team.
The Jack Benny Program (1962-63)—various characters
The New Phil Silvers Show (1964)—“Stanislavsky”
BK: I had so much fun with these guys. Jack Benny said to me, [Jack Benny impression] “Now, don’t talk ’til they finish laughing.” He had this very paced-out delivery. He would say, “I know a man so rich, he’s got his own golf course… indoors!” Jack was a prince of a man. I worked with so many stars—so many stars—and sometimes you have to be a little bit cautious because some stars just want their own selves to be getting the laughs, or to be appreciated, and they’ll say, “Okay, you just do the setups, I’ll get the laughs.” Jack, very much like Steve Allen, loved talented people. He understood what comedy was. Whoever gets a laugh on The Jack Benny Show benefits The Jack Benny Show, of course. But some people have that childish ego; they say, “No, it’s gotta be me, it’s gotta be me.” But he was just a gem to work with. I remember one of the other things he said to me was, “How come you know your lines so well, you son of a bitch?” I don’t know how old I was, about 22 or 23, but I said, “Because I knew I’d be working with you, and I didn’t want to mess up. I just wanted to be as good as I possibly could be.” And he gave me a hug—just so nice. Such a nice, nice guy.
The same thing can be said about Don Adams, whom I loved working with. He was welcoming, and he appreciated what I brought to it. Just a word about Don: He was a Marine. He was a Marine in World War II, and bullets didn’t kill him, but cigarettes killed him. So I would say to your readers, if you’re smoking, don’t do it anymore, ’cause it’s not good for you. It killed Don, and it could kill anybody who thinks that the pleasure of smoking cigarettes is worth your life, which it’s not. I think of Sammy Davis. I worked with Sammy and Frank Sinatra, and I had a campaign on television for years; the product was “CigArrest.” It was a non-smoking product that helped people to stop smoking. Sammy was aware of that, and at some big event in Beverly Hills, he came up to me and said, “Hey Bernie, you got a light?” I said, “That’s very amusing,” and he said, “I know, I know how you feel about smoking,” he says, “But I smoke all the time, and my voice has never been better.” And within two months, he had died of lung cancer. So readers, please don’t fool yourselves. Don’t do that to yourselves. If you’re smoking, stop doing it. Do you smoke, by the way?
AVC: I do not.
BK: Good, good for you. Okay, you’re off the hook.
AVC: What about Phil Silvers? What was he like?
BK: Phil Silvers was the same character that he played on his first show, Sergeant Bilko. Phil was a stage actor. He was offered a role in The Forum. What is it, Everything’s Up To Date In The Forum, or What’s Happening In The Forum?
AVC: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
BK: He turned it down. He didn’t think it was right for him. Then, Zero Mostel took it over, and it was a tremendous hit. So when it came around again, he took it, and he won a Tony. He was the only actor that won a Tony for a redo. He was a marvelous performer, and we had the luck to have him on The Love Boat as well. He played a very poignant character, a man who was dying. I thought, “Gee whiz, is this a good idea? To have, on a comedy show, someone who dies?” But at the same time, Stella Stevens, who played a woman who’d been trying to have a baby for the longest time, she conceives at the same time he dies. Some people think there’s a spiritual meaning to something like that, and maybe there is. One soul leaves, another soul comes around.
The Love Boat (1977-1986)—“Dr. Adam ‘Doc’ Bricker”
BK: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, it was exhausting. Such exhausting work on Love Boat. In fact, to be for real, my frame of reference for acting was this: Okay, I do The Doris Day Show, and it’d be three or four days on a Hollywood soundstage. Then you come out, and you’re in Hollywood, and that’s lovely and fine. On The Love Boat, you’re on a ship. It goes out beyond the 12-mile limit. You’re going out into the world of London, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Athens, Cairo, Tel Aviv, The People’s Republic Of China, Japan… It was such a treat. And I’d been in the Navy. So, in the Navy, I was the lowest of the low. I was just a seaman apprentice. I remember being late one day coming in from Istanbul, and I had to spend the whole next day scrubbing out bread pans. That was less fun than being treated royally on The Love Boat.
Pacific Princess, Island Princess… all of these beautiful, sleek, luxurious ships. Some days, you didn’t even have to work. My background was this: I drove a taxi in L.A. I tried to sell Kirby vacuums in L.A. It was quite a while before I got going. And I’m just thinking about this professor I had at NYU. He would smoke Berings and Coronas, these marvelous cigars, and every once in a while he would smoke a stink-a-roo. I said, “Professor, why are you smoking that awful cigar?” And he said, “For the balance. So you know the difference between a stink-a-roo and a really good cigar.” I’m not advocating anybody start smoking cigars, but it’s a life lesson. You can’t eat filet mignon every day, because it gets to be meaningless after a while. You have a cheap hamburger every once in a while just to get the difference.
Anyway, so much for that. It was heaven. It was absolutely heaven, and they pay you more money every year. It went on for 10 years, and I got away with murder. My character could say to any woman he found attractive, “Take your clothes off, I’ll be right in.” I got to have love scenes with some of the most beautiful ladies. Jill St. John, Juliet Prowse… lovely, lovely people. We had stars, we had Academy Award winners. Ray Milland, Eva Marie Saint, Ernie Borgnine, Shelley Winters… I mean, on and on and on. And Greer Garson; I was so awed. Of course, with my age, I saw Mrs. Miniver, and I saw That Forsyte Woman with Greer Garson, this gorgeous redheaded lady in a green velvet gown. I approached her, and I said, “Excuse me, Miss Garson,” and she said [Greer Garson voice], “Yes dear, what would you like?” I said, “Why are you doing this?” And she laughed, and she said, “I thought it would be a lovely way to say hello to old friends.” And of course it was, and it was a great privilege to have her. We had Ethel Merman, we had Cab Calloway, we had Dick Shawn. The list just goes on and on, just to be around these people. Did I tell you about Dick Shawn?
BK: Dick Shawn was this brilliant, brilliant comedian. He was watching a scene where I was kissing this lovely young lady, and I come off, and he says, “You know what Love Boat is?” He says, “Love Boat is a porno flick done by Disney.” Because it just goes so far. We also had the “Page 58 resolutions.” Tom Bosley came on, and he was playing a guy in a wheelchair; he couldn’t walk. But by page 58, he gets up, and he can walk. We said, “How the heck does that happen?” And he said, “It’s a miracle, and that covers it.” Silly, but true; we had happy endings.
I mean, it’s so different from television today. Just about every show has a dead body that people are talking over. That may not be as cheerful as some people think. Or the shows where people are eating worms and bugs and stuff like that. This show’s not happening right now, but Everybody Loves Raymond is like real life, when people argue, but it’s loving. That show’s not on the air, they’re just on reruns right now. But it’s a different world. I’m certainly not complaining, because Love Boat, to me, is the gift that keeps on giving.
More recently, I’ve done Monk, I’ve done My Name Is Earl, and I’ve been doing a play. Are you sitting down? I’ll tell you the name of the play: Viagra Falls. We did it 12 weeks in Calgary, Canada, 12 weeks in Toronto, then we did it in New York for a while, then we did it in Orlando, and then we did it in Sarasota. But it’s a very funny play, it’s a feel-good play. Just two old farts, a hooker, and a blue pill. [Laughs.] Just imagine what happens there. Whoo-hoo.
ABC Afterschool Special: The Day My Kid Went Punk (1987)—“Tom”
BK: Oh yes, yes. I remember it. That’s where I met [Monk producer] Fern Field. Fern Field wrote this and directed it. I didn’t have any kids at the time, and I sort of wondered what it would be like to handle a teenager who is in rebellion, and he wants to do the mohawk in his hair and go through all this. It explored these questions. Now I have a teenager, and I’m just hoping that I’m not messing it up. You just hope as a parent that you do the right thing and don’t do anything that would damage the kids. So far my 14-year-old is an “A” student. His name is Adam. And Joshie is a good little jock. He’s a really good baseball player. He pitches, he plays shortstop, he plays the outfield, and he hits really well. So I’m blessed.
We’re getting to the end of this, so I just want to say to your readers: My attitude is gratitude. I know what my life has been, I know what my life was. Driving a taxi was not as much fun as playing Doc on Love Boat, but that was my balance. That was my way to appreciate the good stuff. Hang in there for the goodies, ’cause you never know what marvelous thing might be around the corner, as long as you’re cheerful and hopeful.