TV Guide Article, March 31, 1979

This article appeared after The Love Boat became a ratings hit:



"Nobody knew it was me getting laughs"

After 16 years as the man behind the makeup, Bernie Kopell is glad to show his face on The Love Boat.

By Kenneth Turan

For 16 years, Bernie Kopell was The Man of a Thousand Faces, all of them funny, none of them his own.  He was the mock martinet Siegfried on Get Smart, a 100-year-old apothecary on Bewitched, "China's outstanding Shakespearean actor" on The Steve Allen Show, and so many different types of Latins that "I'd worry that if they needed a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, they wouldn't hire me because I wasn't the type."

Yet while causing laughter on the outside, Kopell was, if not exactly crying, at least sniffling on the inside. "People would say, 'Gee whiz, that Siegfried was funny,' but they never put that together with a human being," he says now. "No one had any idea there was a young man underneath all that makeup. Nobody knew it was me getting laughs. I was so unrecognizable that I had some amount of depression, a sense of loss when I was coming off of roles."

You look at Bernie Kopell and you wonder how it could be otherwise. The man's profile is nonheroic, his face boyish rather than hard-bitten, and while his eyes may twinkle, they do so behind the glint of a formidable pair of glasses. This, you say, is a born second banana, someone with as much chance of making the jump to leading man as J. Fred Muggs. And you are wrong, wrong, wrong.

For as ship's doctor on that floating singles bar known as The Love Boat, Bernie Kopell has become a heartthrob. As the debonair, slightly leering, four-times-married Dr. Adam Bricker, a man given to saying things like "Vegas, that town's my kind of medlcine," Kopell plays a character who not only chases women but does so successfully, even ending up, on one episode, capturing the affections of a pair of identical twins.

"He's the kind of person mothers would trust to chaperone their daughters while hoping he'd make a pass at them at the same time," says Fred Grandy, better known as Gopher, the trusty ship's purser. As for Kopell, he confesses, "I never in the world thought anyone would buy me as a romantic lead," mentioning things like his "surprisingly naughty" illustrated fan mail. "Women sending me pictures. It's astounding."

The pictures get thrown away. Kopell has been married for four years to Yolanda Veloz, a former actress he met while both were performing in the short-lived series Needles and Pins. Knowing her to be the daughter of the premier ballroom-dancing team of the 1930s, Veloz & Yolanda, Kopell says he "expected impossible grace" and found instead that "every time she came near me she stepped on my foot."

As he tells this story, Kopell is conducting a tour of his ranch-style home in the San Fernando Valley, complete with pool and tennis court. The home's most unusual feature is a space for his-and-hers rope-skipping, an activity Kopell, who calls it "possibly the greatest single exercise known to mankind," has pursued indefatigably for 15 years, to the point where he looks like a ranking middleweight contender when he gets going.

All that skipping (plus a positive mania for tennis) means that, if nothing else, Kopell's body is ready for this new stardom. "Why's he popular?" says Dick Van Patten, a friend for nearly a decade. "Because a lot of people like a cute guy, cute can be attractive, and Bernie's cute."

Ask Kopell himself about his success, however, and he concentrates not on hls physical condition but on his mental one. After eight years of analysis and nearly two decades of involvement with a positive-thinking philosophy called Science of Mind, he has concluded that in his earlier years "I was programmed for failure. I couldn't get it together until I realized I deserved a better life than I was getting. Once I started buying me, they started buying me."

Born 45 years ago in Brooklyn, Kopell was trained as a classical actor at New York University and thought of himself as a budding interpreter of Shakespeare and Shaw. His parents, however, thought something else again.

"Since nothing was happening with my career, they wanted me to stop banging my head against the wall and try something else -- they didn't care what," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Take a couple of thousand bucks and set up an office, any kind of office, just so you're doing something constructive.'"

They kept reminding me, 'We sent you through school, Bernard; we think you could be doing better than this, Bernard.' And I had uncles who would work on me at parties at 15-minute intervals, like 'OK, Al, you go now.' Then it was, 'Bernard, do you realize what you're doing to your father?' followed 15 minutes later by another uncle and 'Bernard, do you realize what you're doing to your mother?' There wasn't an awful lot of support for me getting into show business."

Since it was obvious he wasn't flourishing in New York, Kopell in 1958 decided to abandon the city for the West Coast. "Every good thing that's happened to me happened here," he says. "Thank God for California."

The good things were a while coming, however, but though Kopell had to take the usual run of part-time jobs, they turned out to pay unexpected dividends. His spell as a cab driver, for instance, was rewarded when a producer passenger gave him a tiny role as President Polk's secretary in a 1959 film, The Oregon Trail; "My lines were, 'Yes, Mr. President' and 'Yes, sir'."

More important, his days as a seller of vacuum cleaners led to his involvement with Science of Mind, a philosophy originated in the 1920s by Dr. Ernest Holmes, a New England elocutionist. To Kopell, Science of Mind stresses that much depends on your vision of things: whether you consider the glass of water to be half full or half empty. "It is," he says, "the most dynamic force in my life."

His interest in it started when "I'd hear these records playing in the back of the vacuum-cleaner place, positive-thinking records; they were supposed to be morale boosters for the salesmen who'd come back from bombing out. They said your mind is like the earth: whatever you plant, you will grow. If you plant negativity, you will grow negativity. You are responsible for what comes out. It seemed so clear; it made so much sense to me."

Similarly accidental was Kopell's discovery that he could do accents, something he had never known until "this horrible agent who was always sending me out for parts that were already cast" sent him to an audition for The Brighter Day, a soap, in 1961. Naturally, the part he wanted was long gone, but "the casting director took pity on me and said, 'Maybe you could read for Pablo.' Pablo? It was like saying, 'Maybe you could do some levitation?' But you know how you get so angry when things are going badly, you just do it, so I went ahead and did it and I got the part."

That part led to more roles in more different accents than Kopell can rightly remember. He became so adept at this that Fred Grandy still calls him "probably the best Japanese actor since Toshiro Mifune, maybe better," but all that is entirely in the past. "It's not OK to do accents now; ethnic minorities prefer you don't do it," he says, wistfully. "Almost a whole mode of comedy is gone."

Though he'd had nonaccent series roles before, playing good-neighbor Jerry to Marlo Thomas's That Girl as well as Alan-A-Dale in the very short-lived When Things Were Rotten, Kopell never expected the magnitude of his success in The Love Boat

"I guess the show just came at the right time," he says. "With all the violence on TV, all the blowing up of cars, people needed some rest, a throwback to the romantic fantasy of the '30s and '40s. And putting it on a ship, out of polluted cities, away from crowded traffic -- that was a stroke of genius."

As for himself, nothing pleases Kopell more than noting that "I did it all backwards. Usually you start as a young leading man and as you get heavier and balder you evolve into a character actor, but my evolution was reversed," a situation he considers final vindication for the positive thinker that's been lurking inside him trying to get out.

"It was daring all those apparently negative concepts," he explains, a true believer. "This is what I dreamed about, what I thought was impossible to have, but I have it. And you know what, a voice doesn't come out of the sky and say, 'You don't deserve that.'" And to top it all off, those people who advised him to change careers: "They're now saying, 'I always knew you could be a hit, didn't I tell you you could do it?' " Bernie Kopell smiles at this, but it is a smile of contentment, not revenge.