For children of the '70s and '80s, TV was our memorable introduction to bar culture, illuminating fictional watering holes like Sam Malone's Cheers and of course the Regal Beagle, essentially a second home for Jack Tripper and his gold chain-wearing bud Larry in Three's Company. But it was on Aaron Spelling hit The Love Boat that we got to know charming Isaac Washington, the bartender known for his signature grin-and-point move and a mustache that would be coveted by today's handlebar-loving barkeeps.
At last week's boozy Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, Ted Lange, the actor who played Isaac for the show's 10-year run, was the guest of honor at a campy dinner held at the Museé Conti Wax Museum by Disaronno, where several bow-tie clad bartenders slung cocktails with the Italian liqueur. Naturally, the evening's winning drink, crafted by Miami mixologist Julio Cabrera, was declared The Isaac.
We caught up with Lange, who stayed in town with his lovely art teacher wife, Mary, for the weekend to talk the changing face of cocktails, poker rituals and his penchant for writing historical plays.
Looks like you had a blast on every episode of The Love Boat, but any highlights?
Ben Vereen, he and I were actors together in New York. We've known each other for years. Third year of The Love Boat, I said, 'How come you haven't done our show?' He said, 'I'll do your show when you direct it.' They said if I could get Ben, who turned down the show four times -- I think it was his agent -- we could make it a black storyline. When I told Aaron Spelling I could get Ben they [were skeptical]. They didn't know I knew him and I got him and it was a great experience. He also did one of the musical shows. What a dancer that guy was. Another time, Jimmy Osmond wouldn't kiss a girl on the show [because of his religion] but Marie Osmond did a show in Italy and tongued the guy. He kept saying, 'Marie Osmond tongued me.' It was fun. And, I was in a Chinese restaurant with Lee Majors and there were pictures of supermodels above the urinals. One of them was Farrah Fawcett [who used to be married to Majors]. He came out and said, 'Who owns this place? That's my ex-wife over the urinal and I want her picture down. I'm coming back here tomorrow.'
At the Disaronno dinner earlier, you mentioned that back in the day you were a regular at Studio City bar The Residuals, where a check bearing even a paltry amount scored you a free drink. What was your pleasure during that time?
That was my vodka era. Stoli. As a matter of fact, Stoli got me a job with Lee Majors. He was doing Fall Guy. He went on a cruise with us. We were in Hong Kong and he was looking for a director. He had been out on the town drinking Stoli and said to me, 'You direct television, would you direct my show?' I'll never forget we were in front of a hotel. We had a couple of drinks and we were holding the wall up, standing in front of the hotel to make sure it didn't fall down. 'Feel like it's tipping?' 'Feels like it's tipping to me.'
On The Love Boat, what were those celeb guests usually ordering from you?
Those were all the drinks with fruit and flowers and umbrellas. A Mai Tai, an Acapulco Lounge special, blended drinks.
As you saw at the dinner, mixology has gotten far more complex and serious than The Love Boat days. What do you think about this new chapter for cocktailing?
What happens when I go out is, if I get recognized by a bartender, they want me to try their special drink. 'Aren't you the guy who?' 'Yeah.' 'Can you just taste this?' 'Yeah.' I think the drinking thing has evolved, and like anything else it's gone through a slump and come out. Like that Disaronno contest. I was fascinated they used it as a base and the different ways they could take it. I like flamboyance when they're making drinks.
At home do you experiment with cocktails?
I have a monthly poker game at home and I have a full bar. It's usually after I've lost, though, and I'm folding more than I'm playing, when I say, 'By the way guys, taste this. What do you think of this?' I like to give people options. Some guys like vodka or gin, some like bourbon or scotch. But now that I have a drink named after me, they're going to have to try it.
So this is a tradition that's been going on a long time?
Fifteen years. Certain games have evolved. Antonio Fargas, who played Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch, used to have a game where the maximum bet was twenty-five cents. Some years ago he moved to Vegas so now I have a voiceover poker game where all the guys are announcers, an actor game now where the guys are all actors and a straight game, because not everyone is in showbiz. A couple of young guys are from MIT. But they're not good to play with because they can count cards.
Do you cook, too?
I'm really good with leftovers. You're trying to match what you think taste wise would gel in a pot and I add pasta. I stay away from the creams and just go with the flavor of the leftover chicken or steak with olives, capers, green bell peppers, garlic or onions.
These days, much of your time is devoted to writing and directing historic plays--you've done twenty-four. Your next, the Civil War-era Lady Patriot, opens September 7 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood, with Lou Beatty, Jr. from Off Their Rockers. Have you long been a history buff?
No, it was an accident. I was writing some modern-day comedies and I was being compared to Neil Simon. The black Neil Simon, they called me. My wife and I, she was my girlfriend at the time, I take her to Florence and we're visiting the statue of David. We're sitting in a little café. She says, 'You should write a play about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.' I say, 'No, Mary, they already have The Agony and the Ecstasy, I would want to do something different, something about Michelangelo carving the David. Wait just a minute. That's my story.' I wrote a conversation between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci that night without having done any research. And then I did the research and the speech was on the money. There's always been a thing between young artists and old [artists]. So I wrote about a young guy coming after an older guy. They actually wanted da Vinci to carve the stone but he didn't want to do it because carving was peasant's work and frescoes were the true art form.
Do you ever go on cruises these days?
My wife gets seasick so I'm not going. I'd rather fly.