It’s been almost three decades since the bar closed on the Pacific Princess, the ship famously known as “The Love Boat.” But good memories of the 1970s situation comedy and in particular one of its beloved characters, Isaac Washington, the cool bartender played by actor Ted Lange, still linger.
He may not be serving drinks and relationship advice these days, but Lange has continued to chart his own course that includes more television, films and writing and directing plays, such as “Lady Patriot.”
The play centers on a formerly enslaved and college-educated African American named Mary Bowser. As if those two distinctions weren’t enough to secure a place in history, she became a spy during the civil war, using her photographic memory and a close proximity to powerful people to infiltrate the Confederacy. The play is part of trilogy about little-known stories of African American history, all written and directed by Lange.
Style Weekly: What led you to the “Lady Patriot?”
Ted Lange: I’ve been writing a number of plays about American history … some of the African-American historical figures that have been involved in moments. I’m a footnote historian. Through the years people have sent me stories or let me know different things about history, one of the stories I came across was Mary Bowser. Mary Bowser was really wonderful, because first of all nobody knows about her, she’s an African-American slave, college-educated, and came back to Richmond, Va. during the civil war! Mary Bowser is one of those people that I feel deserves recognition for her contribution to American history.
What’s the story?
There was a spy in the [Confederate] White House, and nobody knew who it was. So everybody’s looking around for who they think the spy is, and as it turns it out, it was this girl, Mary Bowser ... and the question is, how did she get the information out? It’s really a fascinating story. What I’m trying to do as a playwright is to present the facts in a dramatic way, with comedy, and enlighten the audience on some figures they might not know anything about.
Do you think films like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” have made subject matter like this popular?
If they were in style, they would do a lot more. You named on one hand two movies. What’s in style right now is comic book movies ... that’s in style. What is wonderful is: The time is coming that we want to share these stories that heretofore were hidden, deleted or done away with, and now they’re coming to the fore. What I’ve always said is, 'If you’re a good storyteller, that’s what’s going to make it.' That’s what movie makin’ and playwritin’ is all about, being a good storyteller, having believable charters, and telling stories in such a way that you grab the audience. And that’s what my play “Lady Patriot” does, it grabs the audience.
Why do you think people liked Isaac, the character you played on “The Love Boat” so much?
When you go into a bar, you want people to drink. If the bartender isn’t charming, and he’s a grumpy guy, who wants to get a drink from that guy? You know? Who wants to ask that guy for advice? So, my idea was, there should be certain kind of charm that he has, that would first let a person sit down and have a drink. So what I tried to do was be charming and maybe some of that went over the TV screen and into the homes of people so that people so that fans of the show and audience of the show, were charmed by the character as much as the characters in the scene. That was very important. He’s always approachable. He was light, you he was guy that made you sit down and you wanted to unburden your troubles, because It’s not like sitting down with some serious guy, you know, this is a guy you can sit down with and say “Hey, I had a problem today.”
Did you feel a responsibility being the only African-American cast member on a popular TV show?
[The show] being a hit magnified it. I came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we were trying to make inroads that weren’t there. So you were hoping that by your presence you were opening doors for other people. Sometimes people wanted to be negative about you being there, but you had to show a positive kind of attitude, so that you represented not just yourself, but other talented African-American artists that might be looking for a gig, you know? I remember one time I wanted to do one story, ‘cause “Love Boat” did three stories, and I directed an episode, and I said, I want to make this story black, and they let me do it. I think part of the reason they let me do it was because sometimes they don’t think about it -- they just like the stories. But by my being there, and being a positive influence, they said 'Ok yes, do it.'
Which episode was this?
This was the story of Ben Vereen and I believe it was Denise Nicholas. It was my first directing thing. We got ‘em to get Ben Vereen who was very hot at the time and we did the show.
I’ve been wanted to ask you this next question for awhile. Do you know who Neal Brennan is?
Who is Neal Brennan?
He was Dave Chappelle's writing partner.
Ohhhhh yeah, I heard of that guy, sure.
He has a story that he tells about you-
No, about you.
Neal Brennan tells a story about me?
Yeah, he said you were getting a lot attention from females on "The Love Boat." And this didn’t set well with the network brass. So, you they asked you to wear a red dress for the show. You refused several times. Finally, you go into your dressing room and find the dress, hanging behind your door. You take the dress to the producer and throw it on his desk, telling him that it’s not going to happen, ever. The producer backs down but asks if you can just put the dress on just once, just for him.
Oh that’s the story, yeah yeah. No, that’s not me. No, that’s not me. But that is a Hollywood story. My story with the dress is, between “Love Boat” and “That’s my Mama,” I did a show called “Mr. T and Tina.” And what they wanted to do with me is they wanted me to wear a women’s hat. I said, ‘Why would my character wear a women’s hat?’ And they said, ‘Well we think it’s funny.’ But I said there’s nothing to the front part of this (the script) to lead up to me putting a woman’s hat. So I went to the executive producer, I said you know, it’s not in the writing, I’m not putting on a hat, a female hat just cause you guys think it’s funny, you gotta set it up. I knew how to do a joke, you know what I’m saying? And the joke has to have the setup and the punchline, and there is no punchline for me putting on a female hat. So they said, ‘OK, you don’t have to do it.’ So the next week they came in and said we’re going to do Little red Riding hood as a kabuki play. We want you to be little red riding hood. And I said, ‘ok fine. and then later I just thought about it and I said, “ Aw man ….” And I asked them, “Do I have to be little red riding hood?” And they said “Would you rather be the wolf?” and I said “Yeah, I’d rather be the wolf,” and they said no problem. You’ll be the wolf and Pat Morita will be Little Red Riding Hood. So then when we came to the week when we were going to shoot the show, we did it kabuki style. And kabuki style, we wore kabuki dresses. So they got me in a dress. I do believe there is some kind of ritual, for actors, and that at some point, they do, they put on a dress. I don’t know what it means exactly, but if you look at some of the different things, different avenues in which actors wore the dress like, Sylvester Stallone wore the dress in a move when he was in a movie with Billy Dee Williams.
Then Arnold Schwarzenegger wore a dress in [“Total Recall”]. When the writing is good, you don’t think about it. But they all do it. Sam Jackson wore the dress, he did a movie where they wore kilts. So it wasn’t technically a dress, but it was.
Wesley Snipes. Arsenio. Eddie Murphy.
Yeah, remember that? It may be Hollywood ritual connected to a dress, you know? There’s a lot of different stories that pop up, that story that you just told me, I’ve heard it with about three or four different actors. That’s the first time I’ve heard it with me. It’s like a Hollywood urban legend. It’s some kind of ritual, but I don’t know exactly what it is.
FrancesEmma Inc. Presents "Lady Patriot" on Friday, May 23 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, May 24 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, May 25 at 3 p.m. at Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music at University of Richmond.