- - Monday, June 15, 2015

Actor/director/playwright Ted Lange is one of the most recognized and beloved personalities in show business. For 10 years, he played Isaac Washington, the bartender on “The Love Boat.” But Mr. Lange is much more than that smiling drink-server you remember from 1970s TV. He has spent the decades since “Love Boat” as a world-renowned playwright and director, creating over two dozen theatrical works highlighting the lives of forgotten black figures in American history.

His latest play, “The Journals of Osborne P. Anderson,” takes a look at the events surrounding the death of John Brown at Harpers Ferry, and will be performed at Theatre/Theater in Los Angeles through June 28.  

The self-proclaimed “footnote historian” reflects on his time on “The Love Boat,” the curse and blessing of Isaac and how theater saved his life.

Question: When did you start your acting career in theater?

Answer: In San Francisco in 1967 in “Romeo and Juliet.” We did Romeo’s family black and Juliette’s family white. Pretty radical for 1967. I worked with Margaret Roma, who had worked with [Bertolt] Brecht. She was the best thing that could have happened to me. She sparked the curiosity.

Q: Your plays are based on historical figures and events. How do you find the balance between entertainment and education?

A: You have to be a storyteller. It is not about the event, but it is about how it affects the human heart. I call myself a “footnote historian.” What I am concentrating on is all of the African-American participation in great moments in history.

Q: Your latest play is “The Journals of Osborne P. Anderson,” about John Brown and the uprising at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Who was Anderson?

A: When you look at John Brown at Harpers Ferry, you see there were five black guys with him. Two were killed at the ferry, two were hung, one got away. Years later, in Boston in 1861, he wrote a book about his experience. That man was Osborne P. Anderson. We’re going to the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the week of Aug. 1.

Q: How important is research to what you do?

A: I cross-reference with different books on the subject, and then I go to the place where the actual events took place. You get information that is not in the books.

Q: Do people still recognize you from “The Love Boat”?

A: All the time. I’m lucky that people liked the character as I did him. When people see me, they smile.

Q: You weren’t Isaac in the original pilot of “The Love Boat,” correct?

A: I did a show called “That’s My Momma.” On that show, the actor Teddy Wilson, who played the postman, was the original bartender, but his character was grumpy. I wouldn’t buy a drink from that guy. I don’t know why he chose that, but you can’t do that.

I had just done a show for James Komack with Pat Morita called “Mr. T and Tina.” The show didn’t go. ABC sent the script [for which I was] only in three scenes [and] the opening, where I stood with the crew. Silent.

[For the] middle scene, I had three lines: “Here’s your margarita, sir,” “Why do you feel bad?” and “This is on the house.” Third scene [was] where I’m standing around again with the crew. Silent.

I called my agent and said, “I don’t want to do this.” He said, “Ted, have you ever been to Acapulco? It’s 10 grand for three scenes. And you don’t have to do a lot of work. Besides, this is not going to sell.” Famous last words.

Q: How did you get them to expand the character?

A: I developed a camaraderie with Fred Grandy, Bernie Kopell and Gavin MacLeod. They were very generous and would say, “Hey, Ted, why don’t you take my line here?” I was very fortunate to be with some actors that were not insecure. I went to the writers and said, “Everyone has had a storyline except me.” They were afraid of a black guy in a white situation. Bernie and Fred actually wrote the first episode for me. Very generous. Eventually, I got to the point where I wrote and directed episodes, which led to my writing and directing plays.

Q: Was it hard to find work after “The Love Boat”?

A: Yes. I went out for a couple of film parts, [but] they weren’t too happy to see me, which was odd, because I knew I was capable of playing other parts. They weren’t having it. Playing Isaac was a double-edged sword.

Q: Was that why you returned to theater?

A: Theater saved my life. It kept me from going crazy. After “Love Boat,” I did “Driving Miss Daisy” on tour. I went all over the country. I had a ball and loved it till it got to the point where I thought, “That [woman] is going to have to drive herself.” [laughs] Theater is where I get to tell the tale I want to tell without some money guy standing over me. It’s my salvation.

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