Family & Companions
A renowned supporting player with a penchant for broad, over-the-top comedic characterizations, Bernie Kopell established his career as the maladroit and amicable villain, Siegfried, in the classic spy comedy "Get Smart" (NBC-CBS, 1965-1971). After spending his post-"Get Smart" years in guest spots on television series peppered with a few feature roles, Kopell became an unlikely heartthrob playing the devil-may-care playboy and ship doctor, Adam Bricker, on what became a bellwether of cheesy American television, "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-86). Once called a "Man of a Thousand Faces" by TV Guide, Kopell struggled with the anonymity of his myriad, caricatural roles over the course of his career. But the staying power of both Siegfried and Dr. Bricker in American pop culture - thanks in part to late night cable - helped Kopell earn a new generation of fans, who lavished seeing him in both his original guises and in later reprisals that he performed many times over the years.
Born June 21, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY, Kopell grew up an introverted child to father, Al, a jeweler, and mother, Pauline. Though largely keeping to himself, he developed into an astute people-watcher, observing and absorbing other people's habits, quirks and mannerisms. When he turned 13, Kopell put his skills to use after gravitating toward the stage at summer camp, where he quickly discovered a penchant for mimicry, finding it "a tremendous opportunity not to be me." Kopell soon threw himself into his new pursuit. A few years later, he graduated Brooklyn's Erasmus High School, then went across the river to attend New York University, where he earned his degree in dramatic arts. He did a stint in the U.S. Navy after college, serving as a librarian at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, VA, then later aboard the U.S.S. Iowa. He mustered out in 1957 and attempted to pursue an acting career in New York, but wound up "banging [his] head against the wall," while sorely disappointing his parents and a phalanx of uncles, who encouraged the young man to give up show business and find respectable work.
But Kopell reconnected with one of his classmates from NYU, James Drury, who was working as a contract player with 20th Century Fox. Drury - who later became famous as "The Virginian" (NBC, 1962-1970) - convinced Kopell to move to Los Angeles to make it in show business. Heeding the call, Kopell spent his first years selling vacuum cleaners and driving a cab. During his vacuum store days - and long before Oprah Winfrey peddled The Secret - Kopell's bosses played so-called "positive thinking" records to inspire their salesmen, which spurred the young actor to seek out their source. Kopell soon adopted a holistic spiritual philosophy called the Science of Mind, which encouraged the learner to envision and achieve success by aligning one's spirit with a kind of ecumenical God that inhabits all things. As Kopell summed it up to TV Guide in 1979, "[Y]our 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." Sometime later while driving his cab, Kopell picked up producer Dick Einfeld - then preparing the film "The Oregon Trail" (1959) - and decided to plant some positivity. By the end of the ride, Kopell had managed to sell Einfeld on his talents and land a minor speaking role in the film.
With his capacity to put on ethnic accents, which led to an odd early specialty in Latino characters, Kopell began to refine his character work at the Players' Ring Theatre in Los Angeles. His stint there earned him a three-month job in 1961 playing a Cuban villain on the CBS soap opera, "The Brighter Day" (1954-62). Over the next few years, Kopell landed bit parts as Mexican and Puerto Rican characters in a flurry of sitcoms, including "The Danny Thomas Show" (ABC, 1953-1964), "The Jack Benny Program" (CBS, 1950-1965), "The Flying Nun" (ABC, 1967-1970), "My Favorite Martian" (CBS, 1963-66) and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66). "I'd worry that if they needed a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, they wouldn't hire me because I wasn't the type," he joked years after. He filled out his résumé with a handful of other series work and minor roles in a few feature films, but it was in 1966 that he made his first lasting imprint on pop culture.
Producer Leonard Stern caught his turn as a Russian immigrant in a production of "The 49th Cousin" and cast him in a one-off presentation of Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman" (CBS, 1966), playing the hard-hearted young boss who strips beleaguered antihero Willy Loman (Lee J. Cobb) of his dignity. Stern also worked on NBC's hit, "Get Smart," the Mel Brooks- and Buck Henry-created sitcom that followed the adventures of blundering American spy Maxwell Smart (Don Adams). Early in its second season, the producers introduced Kopell's character, Siegfried, Maxwell Smart's opposite number at the evil organization KAOS. In the role, Kopell was the perfect foil to Smart - contrary to Siegfried's Nazi mannerisms and thick German accent, he proved to be equally as whimsical and inept at his job as Smart, while both held each other in high regard despite routinely trying to assassinate one another. In a show known for its comic catchphrases, Kopell had one of the more uproarious ones - whenever his dimwitted henchman Shtarker (King Moody) would drift off on a tangent, often some non-sequitur pop-cultural reference, such as singing "boop-oop-a-doop" from a Betty Boop song, Siegfried would upbraid him, "Zis is KAOS! Ve don't boo-oop-a-doop here!"
Siegfried appeared in only 14 episodes over the course of the series, but Kopell's giddy villainy forever etched him in the minds of fans. Meanwhile, he was getting more regular - albeit less zany - work as Jerry Bauman, buddy and co-worker of Marlo Thomas's boyfriend on the sitcom "That Girl" (ABC, 1966-1971). By the time both shows ended their runs, Kopell was playing a series of characters on "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-72), most of which had him concealed in layers of make-up and fake hair; mainly he was remembered for his portrayal of Postlewaite, the lecherous spell and potion retailer who dispensed antidotes and wry witticisms from a dungeon-like pharmacy. He then adopted his Siegfried accent once again as the voice of the evil Baron Von Butcher, among other characters, in the Saturday morning kids comedy "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp" (ABC, 1970-72), a spy spoof a la "Get Smart" created by former writers from the show that starred a group of monkeys dressed in human clothes.
Beneath the comic imprimatur of those other goofy guest-shots past and imminent, Kopell had grown dissatisfied and depressed enough to enter psychiatric care. Meanwhile, he soldiered on, landing in a hospital-based sitcom called "Temperatures Rising" (ABC, 1972-74). But the network decided to retool the show - twice - leaving Kopell only three episodes of work. He scored another job with "Needles and Pins" (NBC, 1973-74), a sitcom about the textile business that barely lasted long enough for him to meet future wife, Yolanda Veloz. Kopell continued his series of misfires, even after rejoining "Get Smart" creator Mel Brooks for a comedic look at the Robin Hood tale, "When Things Were Rotten" (ABC, 1975-76). With little pretense toward an English pedigree, Kopell took on the role of the smirking smartass Alan-a-Dale alongside fellow "Get Smart" alum Dick Gautier (a.k.a. Hymie the Robot) as Robin Hood and Dick Van Patten as Friar Tuck. The show proffered a deliriously anachronistic version of Sherwood Forest with fusillades of sight-gags, consciously lame jokes and puns, and occasional breaches of the "fourth wall." Alas, the show proved either too ahead-of-its-time, as some posited, or simply too hammy to find a groove with audiences. The network pulled the plug after only a few episodes.
Undeterred, Kopell was undoubtedly frustrated with his string of failures. But everything changed when he was tapped to replace Van Patten - who went on to star in his signature series, "Eight Is Enough" (ABC, 1977-1981) - to play Dr. Adam O'Neill on the two-hour television movie sequel, "The Love Boat II" (ABC, 1976). Thanks to high ratings, the network commissioned a third movie, "The New Love Boat" (ABC, 1977), in which Kopell was recast as the less-Irish Dr. Adam Bricker. The movie, which aired in May 1977, effectively served as the pilot for the eventual series, "The Love Boat," which began airing the following September. Set aboard a luxury cruise liner perpetually bound for Acapulco, the "Love Boat" was part sitcom, with the ship's crew as the regular cast, and part anthology, tracking varied vignettes of the romantic couplings of the passengers, played by a gaggle of then-television stars, B-level movie actors and Hollywood greats in their sunset years. Meanwhile, the crew - which included Captain Stubing (Gavin McLeod), head bartender Isaac (Ted Lang), goofy yeoman purser Gopher (Fred Grandy) and cruise director Julie (Lauren Tewes) - contended with their own amorous entanglements, which sometimes dovetailed into the romantic misadventures of their passengers.
Despite drawing thirty-plus million viewers each week, critics did little to welcome the show. Even the Washington Post cited "The Love Boat" for pulling "the median level of mediocrity down to unfathomable lows." But regardless of critical scorn, "The Love Boat" became a ratings juggernaut and eventually a Saturday night institution, "a fantasy that transports viewers out of their very real problems - crime, inflation, pollution, overpopulation," Kopell once told People magazine. For his part, Kopell found himself at the top of his game - and devoid of any makeup or faux accents - playing the four-times divorced "Doc," an affable but perpetually randy joker who would "go after anything that wasn't nailed down." Strangely, his celebrity returned the favor, making him an unlikely sex symbol, a notion that excited the previously ignored actor. Women flooded Kopell with fan mail that included "surprising naughty" pictures of themselves, he told TV Guide. In an interview for the show's 30th anniversary, Kopell told the story of how an attractive woman once approached him from across the dining room during an on-ship shoot and said, "Dr. Bricker, I just want you to know that whenever I masturbate, I fantasize about you. Have a good evening."
After nine years on the air, "Love Boat" began to wear thin with audiences, which led to a precipitous drop in the ratings, prompting the network to eventually axe the show. Kopell resumed a regimen of television guest-star work, but soon found that his two most famous characters would live on in varied iterations. After most of "The Love Boat" cast reunited for the movie special, "The Love Boat: A Valentine Voyage" (CBS, 1990), Kopell reprised Adam Bricker on an episode of Aaron Spelling's "The Love Boat: The Next Wave" (UPN, 1998-99). He would also play Bricker, "Doc" or a similar role in non-sequitur comedic one-offs on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96), "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) "Martin" (FOX, 1992-97), "Beverly Hills 90210" (FOX, 1990-2000) and "Scrubs" (NBC, 2001-08; ABC, 2008-10). In a different twist, he took a job as a pitchman for D-Snore, an anti-snoring medication; he appeared in late-night TV ads delivering the hammy segue, "Snoring can even ruin a romantic cruise." At the turn of the century, Kopell periodically wore his ship uniform for appearances on ads for Regal Princess cruises, encouraging seniors among the passengers to get regular exercise. Meanwhile, he revived Siegfried for the TV-movie, "Get Smart, Again!" (ABC, 1989) and the mid-90s update "Get Smart" (Fox, 1994-95), starring Andy Dick as the bumbling son of Maxwell Smart (Adams) and Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). Kopell also made a cameo in the Hollywood treatment of "Get Smart" (2008), starring Steve Carell in the title role.