‘Gilligan’s Island’ – was it really over FIFTY years ago?

 

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Gilligan’s Island popped onto our TV screens back in the sixties and, like I Love Lucy, it has just stayed there and stayed there and…The more I think about it (which I admit is not often), most of us probably watch the thing because it is forever cluttering up our TV screens at some hour of the day or night. The entire premise of Gilligan’s Island is absurd, annoyingly so. I was a teenager when it debuted and, once I paused from ogling Ginger, it dawned on me that these people really should not be lost at all. I mean, how many uncharted islands are there within three hours of the US mainland? And why couldn’t they get off the island? The ‘Professor’ was supposed to be a genius at creating all kinds of things, yet he was incapable of patching up the lousy four-foot hole in the boat! And why did everyone on board take literally hundreds of changes of clothes on a ‘three-hour cruise’? Over the course of the series the so-called ‘desert island’ produced scores of people apparently stranded on the other side of the island. There are less people on Oahu!

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Don’t bother fixing the radio. Fix the bloody boat!

Then there were Mary-Ann’s coconut cream pies! Every time she needed to get some information out of Gilligan she would whip up one of these delicious concoctions and he would become putty in her hands. More discerning viewers might ask ‘where did the cows come from for the milk needed to make a pie?’ Others might ask ‘what was the crust made of?’ Good questions both, yet many thousands more fans wrote in asking for the recipe! In fact, so many wrote in that Dawn published a nice little earner titled Mary-Ann’s Cookbook that contains no fewer than thirteen recipes for her wonderful coconut cream pie. The sound stage was at CBS and outside filming (other than the pilot episode which was shot in Hawaii) was to have been at Malibu, but there was too much fog, so a lagoon was constructed about a mile from a freeway. In 2012 it was turned into a parking lot! Another unforgiveable example of Hollywood destroying its own history.

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Mary-Ann’s coconut cream pie

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Lovey & Thurston Howell III

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The Skipper, Gilligan & the Professor

So, why was this brainless fare so popular? Why is it still watched in re-runs? I suppose nostalgia has a lot to do with it. For us ‘oldies’ it takes us back to our youth. Perhaps, each of us finds something in the show that touches us. As a hot-blooded teenager I was definitely ‘touched’ by Ginger, while Mary-Anne did nothing for me. Many other viewers, on the other hand, adored her and felt little for the statuesque Ginger. Maybe it was those short shorts Mary-Anne wore that her fans fancied. As I grew older it became apparent that the ones who were really worth watching were the Howells, especially the super-rich, pampered Thurston Howell III. I still chuckle when I think of the episode in which he, after being presented with a shovel, turned to his wife and posed the immortal question, ‘How do you turn it on, Lovey?’ He certainly had the best lines and he and Lovey were beautifully cast. They were played by Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer, both of whom had been acting since Jesus played center half back for Jerusalem.

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Ginger – why do the words

‘broken glass’ and ‘crawling’

spring to mind?

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Mary-Ann – too close a resemblance

to George Hamilton for mine

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Mary-Ann or Ginger? That was the question.

Backus grew up in Cleveland where one of his grade-school teachers was none other than Margaret Hamilton, the wonderful character actress who played the Wicked Witch in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. He accumulated a hefty body of work down the decades that included portraying James Dean’s father in Rebel without a Cause in 1955, yet he will almost certainly be remembered as the voice of Mr. Magoo in those not very funny cartoons, and as Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island. Not much of a legacy really. Natalie also made movies for decades and played minor roles alongside most of the big names at one time or another, chalking up nearly 100 screen credits, although mostly TV guest shots. A smart lady, she invested wisely in real estate and became a multi-millionaire by the time she passed away in 1991 in her nineties.

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the real Margaret Hamilton        and as the Wicked Witch in Oz

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the voice of Mr. Magoo        with Jimmy Dean in Rebel without a Cause

None of the stars received any residuals whatsoever, not once over fifty plus years the show has been running somewhere in the world. ‘I don’t know, maybe I made $700 a week’, said Dawn Wells (Mary-Ann). ‘I understand the producer Mr. Schwartz made $90 million on the re-runs alone. I think we got paid…maybe we made $50,000, I don’t know.’ The original plot was to have three secretaries (or even schoolteachers) on board, but that was changed to a movie star, a professor and a young, pretty girl. Then auditions took place on the east and west coast. Tina Louise (Ginger) was signed first and her agent arranged for her to be billed directly after the Howells. The result was that the professor and Mary-Ann became billed as ‘the rest’ until they got it changed, and rightly so.

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Sherwood Schwartz

Dawn (she is a former Miss Nevada incidentally) made her own short shorts. There were two pairs and she still has them half a century later. ‘We had to cover my navel’, she recalled. ‘We couldn’t show the navel. Or cleavage. We had censors. I had to raise the legs a bit so my legs would look longer and all of that stuff. Because I’m short, you know.’ She and Tina had very little contact away from the set, not through any real animosity, but because they had nothing in common.

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Dawn – Miss Nevada 1959

The opening of the series was shot on Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, the only reason Natalie Schafer agreed to do it. She figured no network would pick up the series, so she might as well accept the two-week holiday in Hawaii. Her mother was seriously ill when a telegram arrived. She read it and burst into tears. Friends thought it contained bad tidings about her mother. ‘They’ve sold the pilot!’ she wailed, which meant she would have to move from New York to California where the rest of the show was to be shot. The series and its characters were created by Sherwood Schwartz who insisted that Gilligan’s first name was Willy. Bob Denver (who played Gilligan) was equally insistent that Gilligan was his character’s first name. The pilot episode was almost completed in Honolulu Harbor when orders came down that shooting would have to be delayed as all military installations were to be closed down for a few days. President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in Dallas.

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Michael J. Pollard filled in for an episode

In that first season Bob received his call-up papers for the US Army and told to report for his medical. The studio signed up Michael J. Pollard to take his place for 30 episodes, but then Bob was classified 4F because he had broken his neck back in the fifties. Pollard had completed one episode before Bob was re-instated. He was paid for the whole 30. ‘I’d heard of going to California to discover gold’, he quipped, ‘but I didn’t know it was true until now.’ The then unknown Warren Beatty appeared in six or seven episodes prior to taking a crack at the movies. Someone locked him in one of the canvas knock-down dressing rooms. He never yelled or screamed; never even tried to break out. He simply waited there very calmly until shooting commenced on the set nearby, then started singing an operatic aria in his very loud, tuneless voice. The director very quickly released him. Kurt Russell also guested when he was a young boy.

As of August 2016 there are just two survivors of the SS Minnow – Tina Louise (Ginger) is now 82, Dawn Wells (Mary-Ann) is 78.

Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III) died in 1989 aged 76.

Alan Hale Jr (the Skipper) died in 1990 aged 68.

Natalie Schafer (Lovey Howell) died in 1991 aged 90.

Bob Denver (Gilligan) died in 2005 aged 70.

Russell Johnson (the Professor) died in 2014 aged 89.

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Bob & Kurt Russell

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the entire cast of Gilligan’s Island

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Dawn, Bob & Russell in recent times pre 2005

I think the enduring charm of Gilligan’s Island lies in our love of nostalgia, but also because the actors who starred in the program were all likeable personalities. Alan Hale (the Skipper) was a gentle, kind soul on-screen and off. So, too, Bob Denver. Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer were old pros who grew into their parts and genuinely enjoyed the company of their fellow players. Tina Louise and Dawn Wells never had a cross word, despite the tabloids working overtime to try to create some kind of feud between them. And Russell Johnson (the professor) was not only a WW2 war hero, he was also the glue that held them all together. When you watch the show, even today, it has a quaintness, a ‘likeability’ factor that rubs off on you. There is no swearing, no nudity, no suggestive scenes and no violence. It has an innocence not often seen today.

6 Comments on ‘Gilligan’s Island’ – was it really over FIFTY years ago?

  1. Although I watched a lot of t.v when I was young, I can not remember this being shown in Britain. I remember Alan Hale Jr from Casey Jones, which was popular at the time.

    • It was very popular here in Australia. Casey Jones was one of the first shows ever on Western Australian TV back in 1959. ‘Gilligan’ only ran for a couple of seasons, but it has been shown in re-runs ever since. Fans are a bit like ‘Trekkies’ – quite devoted to it. Sadly, only Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are still living. The rest are gone. It was a silly, childish show even back in the sixties, but nostalgia tends to overlook things like quality and logic.

      • Their was a lot of shows back then which were considered classic. Bewitched springs to mind, thanks to canned laughter a face pull was worth a thousand hysterical laughs.
        I have found that, what was happening on set with the stars of the program more interesting. Replacing Darren without a explanation for one.

        • Yes, that was really weird. Dick York had to be replaced in 1969 because he had terrible back pain that could not stand the rigeurs of acting day after day. Dick Sargent replaced him overnight, but there was no explanation given to the TV audiences. None whatsoever. It just happened and they were expected to deal with it. You kind of wonder what the show’s producers were thinking of. I do feel that Elizabeth Montgomery was superb as Samantha. A born comedienne. And Marion Lorne as Aunt Clara knocked me out. She rightly won an Emmy for her portrayal but never collected it. Sadly, she died from a heart attack in 1968, just ten days before the ceremony.

          • Elizabeth Montgomery was a fine actress and a good looking women, but at the time I was more interested in the cartoon that started the show. Dick York, although housebound did a lot of work for the homeless, having been in that situation when he was younger. A good bloke on all accounts.

          • I did not know that, but it doesn’t surprise me because he was very popular on the set. In fact, Agnes Moorehead (Endora) more or less remained antagonistic to poor Dick Sargent from day one out of loyalty to York. She eventually came around, but she always preferred the first Darrin.

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