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WATCH: Tom Hanks Made His TV Debut on The Love Boat

The fresh-faced unknown played a real a-hole in a 1980 episode of the ABC drama.
  • Tom Hanks played a womanizing cad in his TV debut, a 1980 episode of The Love Boat. (Photo: Paramount+)
    Tom Hanks played a womanizing cad in his TV debut, a 1980 episode of The Love Boat. (Photo: Paramount+)

    Tracing the humble beginnings of Hollywood icons can be a particularly delightful pop-culture rabbit hole. We've previously explored Angelina Jolie's forgotten music video origins, and Al Pacino's 1968 screen debut in an episode of the shortlived ABC procedural N.Y,P.D.,

    With some celebrities it's hard to believe they weren't always on the A-List, but that's not really the case with Tom Hanks. So much of the legend of Hanks' rise to the status of American Everyman (and eventually America's Dad) is rooted in the common knowledge that he starred for two seasons on the ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies, opposite the late Peter Scolari. The series saw Hanks and Scolari playing two single friends who masquerade as women in order to move into the only apartment they can afford, in an all-female building. The concept was ludicrous, of course, but it got Hanks attention, and it was all upside from there.

    But almost exactly one month prior to the premiere of Bosom Buddies, Hanks made his actual TV debut on another ABC show. This would be only his second screen role, following a small supporting part in the Halloween-styled slasher thriller He Knows Your Alone, which opened in theaters two months earlier. The show is currently available to stream on Paramount+, so let's all take a trip back to the time that Tom Hanks guest-starred on The Love Boat.

    For the unitiated, The Love Boat ran for nine seasons, largely on ABC Saturday nights. The Aaron Spelling-produced show featured a regular cast made up of the crew on the luxury ocean liner the MS Pacific Princess, but every episode featured different cruise guests played by an array of guest stars. It would take far too long to run down the list of guest stars who took a trip on The Love Boat, but it includes pretty much anybody who was a regular on a TV show in the '70s and '80s, and Charo. No shade to Love Boat's permanent cast members like Gavin MacLeod as the stalwart Captain Stubing, Ted Lange as perma-grinning bartender Isaac, or Jill Whelan as the Captain's daughter, but the show's real stars were its guests, so much so that they got top billing when the credits ran. So it was in the October 25, 1980, season four premiere — titled "Sergeant Bull / Friends and Lovers / Miss Mother" (each episode got three titles, one for each subplot) — where Hanks shared guest star credit with the likes of Nipsey Russell, Vic Tayback, and Doris Roberts.

    The non-Hanks storylines included one about an unwed pregnant woman who meets a man on the ship and worries how he'll react to the news that she's expecting, and one about a reunion of Korean war vets with their old sergeant, who can't seem to break out of his "ten-hut!" authoritarian routine long enough to let the guys have any fun. Hanks starred in the third storyline, playing an old fraternity brother of Gopher (Fred Grandy), the ship's purser. As Rick Martin, Hanks was an egotistical, womanizing jerk who had already retired in his 20s after investing in gold futures. He greets his old frat bro Gopher and immediately starts razzing him like they're back on campus, calling him "ol' Strikeout Smith" because Gopher never had any luck with women. Embarrassed and not wanting to lose face with Rick, Gopher finds the closest female — cruise director Julie (Lauren Tewes) — and claims she's his girlfriend. And thus a Love Boat subplot was born.

    The Hanks portion of the episode is the most interesting, in part because it involves Gopher and Julie maybe falling for each another amid their ruse. If this was a modern-day show, they'd have probably gone with the romance, but The Love Boat came from an era where episodic TV rmeant just that: storylines didn't last beyond the boundaries of one episode. So by the end of the episode, Julie and Gopher agree it's best to stay friends, although they still remember to make out one last time to fool Hanks' character on his way off the ship. I think The Love Boat invented friends with benefits for TV in the '80s.

    Then there's the Hanks of it all, which is what elevates this episode to must-see TV lo these many years later. For one thing, it's a rare opportunity to see Tom Hanks playing a complete cad. Once Rick sees that Gopher is dating Julie, he begins heavily flirting with her, touching her knee under the table at dinner, even trying to enter her room while she's getting dressed. He's a primo creep, and Hanks plays the part quite well. It's also kind of wild to see him portray a womanizer because it means we get scenes like this one, with a tiny-swimsuit-wearing Hanks getting rubbed down by three sexy women on the pool deck:

    Revisiting this episode — and in particular, scenes like these — it's clear that The Love Boat is a TV series stuck in time, and that's probably where it should stay. Periodic attempts to revive the show have been cute ideas, but you can't recapture the 1970s/'80s TV style that The Love Boat exemplified. Just dip back into the old episodes on Paramount+! Yes they're dated, but they're fun, incredibly light and airy, and if you grew up watching reruns of TV shows of that era, everyone shows up at one point or another. Even America's Dad … playing America's Cad.

    All nine seasons of The Love Boat are available for streaming on Paramount+.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Tom Hanks, Paramount+, The Love Boat, Doris Roberts, Fred Grandy, Lauren Tewes