Life, Exciting and New
by Jay S. Jacobs
Did you ever hear the story about the young actor who became famous while still in grade school, grew up glamorously amongst some of the biggest names in Hollywood and then went on to become a normal, well-grounded adult?
Not the typical sordid child-star tale, but that’s what life had in store for Jill Whelan. She was still in grade school when she was hired to play the daughter of Captain Steubing (played by Gavin McLeod) on the long-running hit seriesThe Love Boat. The youngest member of Pacific Princess’ crew that also included series regulars Lauren Tewes, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange and Bernie Koppel, Whelan found herself surrounded by Hollywood royalty on a weekly basis while cruising on the Lido deck of a luxury liner.
When not boating around the world with Dick Van Dyke, John Davidson, Scott Baio and Charo, Whelan was doing a series of commercials and TV and movie guest shots – including a supporting role as a young girl in need of a heart transplant in the classic comedy Airplane!
It’s a crazy way to come up, but Whelan didn’t realize it at the time. She also did not slip into the crazed party life to which so many of her contemporaries fell prey.
“I was very lucky to have incredible parents,” Whelan explains, looking back. “My mother kept everything very normal for me. If it hadn’t have been for her, God knows what would have happened.”
She laughs, thinking back. “Rightfully so, I was a little afraid of my mother. That’s important, I think, in raising children. That you’re not their friend. That you are their parent. Kids have enough friends. They don’t need anymore friends. They need parents. In that respect I was very lucky. I think that it’s because of my mother and because of her strong parenting that I got to besomewhat normal.”
However, she did make a lot of friends in her Love Boat run, life long friends who she still sees to this day. In fact, the gang is getting together on New Years Day for the Rose Bowl Tournament of Roses Parade to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Princess Cruise Line.
“In the parade, we’re going to be on Princess Cruise’s float, which should be really exciting,” Whelan explains.
Of course, it’s always fun to see the actors who became like her second family.
“We usually see each other maybe once a year or so,” Whelan says. “Some of us see each other more than others, but some of us live in the same state. I see Ted Lange quite a lot. I see Bernie [Kopell] every once in a while, because they both live here. Gavin [MacLeod], I don’t see as much because he’s not living in Los Angeles. So it’s just a little bit more difficult. Same thing with Lauren Tewes. But we just saw each other in the beginning of November and that was just amazing. We had the best time.”
The funny thing is, acting was just a fluke for Whelan. She wasn’t looking to become a star as a little girl. It was more a case of her mother needing a good babysitter.
“I started when I was seven years old,” Whelan recalls. “My mom was a pre-school teacher and needed someplace for me to be during the summertime when she was teaching summer school to preschool kids. The closest thing was a local theater. All those kids were working in San Francisco. I thought that looked like it was really fun. That’s how it all really started.”
Quickly Whelan’s acting started paying off, getting her some local commercial gigs. Before long she was getting roles on series like Vega$, Matt Houstonand her first series gig on a short-lived show called Friends (not related to the 1990s hit series).
She also got a small role in Airplane!, an offbeat little comedy in which she played a little girl who needed a heart transplant who was serenaded by the stewardess with a very heartfelt and animated version of Peter Paul & Mary’s “River of Jordan.” This role was based on a scene in the film Airport ‘75 with Helen Reddy doing the singing. However, unlike the original film, the singer knocks out the girl’s IV line, causing her to nearly die while the entire plane looks on, beatifically smiling.
When making the film, she did not realize that it would become as iconic as it became.
“We didn’t when we were doing it,” Whelan admits. “We thought when this thing happened that it was either going to be a great flop or a huge success. There was not ever going to be anything in between.”
Still, even though her role was relatively small, people still remember it vividly.
“People do come up [to me] and sing that song, which is pretty funny,” Whelan admits.
In fact, the role is remembered almost as much as her much longer-running role of Vicki on The Love Boat, Whelan admits. Ten seasons steamed on quickly and Whelan grew from a little girl to a young woman on camera.
Hanging out on the Pacific Princess, weekly seeing new guest stars who were amongst the biggest names in show business, acting as a living – it all seems like an unusual childhood. Strangely, though, not to Whelan.
“I don’t know anything else. For me it seemed completely normal. To, you know, grow up in front of the entire United States,” she laughs.
Her youth also kept Whelan from getting too overwhelmed by what was happening to her.
“The thing was, because I was so young I didn’t have the same perspective as I do as an adult now. Being able to know about this sort of stuff. It wasn’t until I did become an adult…,” Whelan laughs.”I worked with Dick Van Dyke when I was an adult, after I had children. I was so star-struck. I could hardly contain myself. I was just a complete fool and an idiot, tripping over myself. So I’m really glad that I wasn’t doing [The Love Boat] as an adult, because I think I would have had a hard time.” She laughs again. “I respect everybody else for their ability to do things very professionally.”
She ended up appearing in 190 episodes over the years.
“I think probably the best episodes that we all loved the most were the musicals that we did. We did a couple of those. Then, other than that, I think the most fun were the cruises that we did. We really had an amazing opportunity, because we got to cruise for six weeks a year. That was phenomenal. That was absolutely phenomenal.”
Of course, the older actors made a point of helping make things as easy as possible for their young co-star.
“They were very protective,” Whelan recalls. “Very protective. Very wonderful. They’re just great people and all were really good friends.”
So there were no bad influences on set, getting her into pranks or feeding her sugary snacks?
Whelan laughs, “No, you know they really weren’t…. They are very good people and they wouldn’t do that. Second of all my mom is there the entire time, therefore her influence was very strong.”
Of course, it helps that the seedier sides of the Hollywood experience never really held any attraction for her.
“I’ve been pretty transparent my whole public career,” Whelan says. “I’m a big homebody. I spend a lot of time at home entertaining with my friends. I’m not a big clubber. I never have been. I always feel like a fish out of water in those places.”
Also, much of her time on set was spent, through necessity, learning.
“I had a tutor on the set,” Whelan says. “For three hours a day I was required by law to go to school with her. Three solid hours. It was almost like home-schooling in a way, but I also went to a regular school on the days that I wasn’t working. My mom tried to make it as normal an experience for me as she possibly could.”
As normal as growing up working on a luxury liner can be. And for herself, Whelan has taken some cruises since leaving the world of the Pacific Princess.
“I’ve done a couple of cruises since the show ended, which have been really fun,” Whelan says. “I got married on a Princess Cruise, which was the prettiest wedding ever. The wedding didn’t last, but the memories of the cruise are amazing.”
When The Love Boat finally docked the last time in 1987, Whelan was ready for a serious shake-up in her life.
“I was living in Los Angeles,” Whelan recalls. “I just finished doing a movie of the week [called Babies Having Babies] with Martin Sheen directing it. One thing your parents can’t protect you from in Hollywood is the fact that you’re only as good as your last project. So, for me, I felt this pressure of: What are you doing next? What are you doing next? I didn’t know.”
She was of college age, so naturally that was a serious consideration.
“I wanted to go to school,” she continues. “I got accepted to USC, but I wanted to leave, so I decided to go to New York. When I came back, I went: Nope, I still feel the pressure here. So I moved to England. I did a couple of semesters at a University there called GuildfordUniversity…. It was a fantastic experience. I had just an amazing time in England…. Then I just came back to Los Angeles and said: Nope, still not feeling good. So I decided to move to New York altogether.”
Eventually she ended up in Philadelphia, and her career took a side step into radio.
“Living in Philadelphia, it’s not the center of the entertainment world,” Whelan says. “But that’s all I knew how to do. I just started meeting people. They asked me to come and guest on Michael Smerconish’s show. So I did. Then the program director there and I became friends. They said just come in and start trying to do some Saturdays and see how that works for you. I was scared to death. I’d never done radio in my entire life.
“I spent two hours just talking by myself,” she laughs. “It was a challenge, but I thought that it would be really something fun to try. Especially about politics, not about pop culture. So I did. I enjoyed it. It was great fun.”
Radio led her back to Los Angeles. Brian Phelps, half of the long-time syndicated radio duo Mark and Brian was looking for a new partner, because Mark Thompson was retiring and moving to North Carolina with his new wife.
“[Brian] and I had been very close buds for a very long time,” Whelan says. “We had always wanted to work together and always had been looking for that opportunity. It just came up that his show was ending with his partner. He asked me if I wanted to take his partner’s place.”
Whelan was ready to join the show, which was based out of KLOS-FM in Los Angeles. However, right before she was supposed to start, Phelps had a slight change of heart. Not about working with Whelan, but about working on radio.
“72 hours before we were going to sign a contract, he was like: ‘No, I can’t get up at 3:00 in the morning anymore. I’m tired. Let’s do a podcast.’”
They did. The Brian and Jill Show soon after debuted on the web, running nearly two years with hundreds of episodes. Brian and Jill decided to call it quits in February this year.
“We both have other projects that we’re doing,” Whelan explains. “I’m bringing my musical act back on tour. I’ve also got some other projects with my other writing partner that are getting kind of hot and heavy, so we really have started to work on other stuff.”
That one-woman show is called “Jill Whelan: An Evening In Dry Dock.” It is a musical look back at her life and her work.
“It’s great fun. I’ve been singing as long as I’ve been acting. The first time I stepped on stage was a musical. So for me it’s like coming home. It’s my favorite medium. It’s what I feel the most comfortable with. It’s just such a gift and such a joy to be able to be doing my show and getting back out there with it. I just love it, even though it scares me to death. That’s the funny thing, you go onstage and before you go on, you go ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ Then you go onstage and you’re like: Yay!” She laughs.
She has also gotten back into filmmaking, doing a couple of movies in the last couple of years. One was a horror film called 6 Degrees of Hell and one was a holiday film entitled A Christmas Tree Miracle.
“Runs the gamut,” she laughs.
Is it fun to get back in front of cameras?
“Yes, one was a horror film with a buddy of mine who is very talented. His name is Harrison [Smith], as well as my son. I did that. Then I did with another friend of mine the other film, which is also really sweet and really wonderful. [It] just came out at Thanksgiving. It had some wonderful reviews. So that’s been great as well.”
So is Whelan enjoying film work or stage work more?
“It’s so hard to choose,” Whelan says. “It’s so hard to choose. One is immediate gratification. The other one you get the opportunity to do it over and over until you feel like you’ve done it right. So, God, it’s really hard to choose.”
Of course, those are not even the most important things in Whelan’s life.
“I guess I am most proud of is my role as a mom,” Whelan says. “I have two boys. One is nine. One is 19.”
The 19 year old is even following in the family footsteps, well, sort of…
“He’s in film school,” Whelan says. “He doesn’t really care whether or not he’s an actor. He really just wants to be a writer and a director. He is quite good as an editor, as well. It’s been really fun to watch him.
“I just sent out a Tweet the other day, because I was walking by my bathroom and I looked in the tub and I saw my son’s toys in the tub. I had just spoken with my older one about a job. And I thought, wow, time sure does go by fast. That made me really nostalgic and I tweeted out a picture of the toys.”
Time goes by fast, indeed.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 27, 2014.
Photos ©2015 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.