Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gilligan's Island and Me

It was 1965. I was 6 years old and we were living in a third floor apartment on the opposite side of the block from a Depression-era Post Office facility. The Post Office had a huge parking lot and right square in the middle of it was a little "island" with grass, a big, decorative rock and a street lamp. All of us kids in the neighborhood called it Gilligan's Island.

We'd run around the lot playing (much to the annoyance of truck drivers) until all hours--there was a light, remember? I was sometimes Gilligan, sometimes the Professor. There was Jeff and Greg and Kenny and Nita and Phyllis and her brother (whose name I forget) and they were all the other castaways. Who was who varied. Sometimes we had more kids so we pretended that a second boat had also gotten shipwrecked on the island!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND had premiered on CBS in the Fall of 1964, which, to us kids, meant that it had been on forever. That first season was in black and white but the second and third were shot and aired in color. Created by Sherwood Schwartz, the premise was ideal for farce, setting up, as it did, a microcosm of society by isolating archetypes in a unique situation.

But enough over-analyzing. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND was hilarious! Silly...stupid even, but not the least bit controversial. It was kid-friendly sitcom at its finest, with a cast of mostly season performers who meshed amazingly well.

Bob Denver had literally joined the cast as the hapless first mate, Gilligan, fresh off his long run on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS where his "Maynard G. Krebs" had become a major TV character as the small set's resident beatnik. Affable Alan Hale, Jr, a dead ringer for his father, a frequent Errol Flynn sidekick, fit easily into his Skipper role, similar in a way to his train engineer role on CASEY JONES a few years earlier. Russell Johnson was one of those character actors from the late fifties who often played authority figures so his deadpan performance worked on several levels. Tina Louise, already a minor sex symbol for several years, was reportedly asked to play a a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball and she did both. I had never seen the real Marilyn in anything but by the time I did, she reminded me of Ginger. Ginger was very pretty. I loved Ginger. BUT, like most Americans, I REALLY loved Mary Ann, played by relative newcomer Dawn Wells. Finally, there were the Howells, played by the voice of Mister Magoo, Jim Backus, and the delightful stage and film actress Natalie Schafer (once the mistress of George S. Kaufman!)

Even latecomers learned the plot from the introductory theme song that reminded us week after week about the portentous three hour tour and how, "If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost." Bottom line--the important thing was that these characters were trapped on an island and couldn't get off. It didn't really matter how they had gotten there. Like many great comedies, if you look at it in a realistic light, it falls apart. But what the hell would you want to do that for anyway? This was clearly farce. It isn't realistic. Of course the Professor couldn't fix the hole in the boat even though he could make a miniature cold fusion reactor out of coconuts and palm leaves. It wasn't his area of expertise, okay?

And there was all that talk of sex over the years. It wasn't THAT kind of farce, people. Get a life. The Professor wasn't screwing Mary Ann any more than Gilligan was getting it on with the Skipper. Even Mr. and Mrs. Howell weren't having sex. For purposes of each week's 30 minute episode, sex didn't exist.

It was a simple premise. There was this island and they were trapped there. A nebbish, an authority figure, a gorgeous movie star, a farm girl, a rich couple and a smart guy. Granted, a surprising number of other silly people came and went seemingly at will--lost pilots, forgotten soldiers, jungle boys--but basically, there were our heroes, the Castaways.

After three seasons, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND went away, returning soon thereafter in afternoon reruns that famously netted the cast little to no residuals. What the reruns did, though, was to turn them all into TV icons and the show itself into a classic of its kind. People began wondering if they had missed a final episode in which they were finally all rescued. But there had been no such episode. Then, in 1978, eleven years after the series ended, most of the cast reunited to give the fans what they wanted in the TV movie, RESCUE FROM GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.

Finally, those poor castaways had closure...or did they? It seems that the rescue movie was SO popular that a second one was prepared to serve as a pilot for a new series, this one, THE CASTAWAYS ON GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, had our old friends setting up a resort on the very island where they had been trapped so long.

A third movie, THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN'S ISLAND aired in 1981. I saw it from my hospital bed where I was being kept overnight for kidney stones. They had me on Percodan. For years, I hoped that I had just imagined this third--and thankfully--final Gilligan TV movie under the influence of narcotics. Sadly, that was not the case.

After that, various combinations of the cast reunited on various sitcoms and talk shows with all of them, even the often-absent Tina Louise, only appearing together one final time, on Ross Shafer's THE LATE SHOW. That entire episode is on YouTube. Then Jim Backus, whose role in the last film had been truncated due to illness, passed away. One by one, he was joined by Natalie, Alan and, surprisingly, Bob Denver himself.

Jim Backus had had no problem working as a character actor after leaving the island back in '67, but everyone else did. Bob Denver's next series, THE GOOD GUYS, was good but unmemorable. His final series, DUSTY'S TRAIL, was syndicated and pretty bad. The others were rarely seen in anything major again without a Gilligan connection.

But at the end of the day, these actors had created characters we all remember in the way we remember our best old friends. Maybe that hasn't helped them personally and I'm sorry for that but it means something. It means something to us all who loved GILLIGAN'S ISLAND that we all share those memories. It means something to those little kids frozen in time back in 1965 playing at getting along in spite of their differences. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND is a simple farce. That's all that creator Sherwood Schwartz put into it and that's all that these wonderful actors brought to the table. But that's certainly not all that we fans have gotten out of it over the years.

Oh, and by the way, in case I didn't make it clear...Mary Ann.


  1. Gilligan's Island was my absolute favorite TV show as a kid. Never missed it. Never.

    I still love GI. Have every season on DVD. Watch it quite often.

    It was genuinely funny.

    It had warmth and heart. Those castaways really cared for each other.

    The casting was perfect. The chemistry between Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver is over the top. Jim Backus was HILARIOUS. Very underrated.

    But the main reason I love Gilligan's Island?

    Mary Ann.

    I thought you were crazy to come up with yet another blog, Booksteve, but this is awesome. Mad you are. A mad GENIUS!

  2. And now Russell Johnson is gone as well !! If there were too many kids at times to portray the original seven castaways , why didn't they play the visitors roles ?? ( Dr. Boris Balinkov , the Japanese Soldier , Wrongway Feldman , the Jungle Boy , Eva Grub , Duke Williams , and Erika Tiffany Smythe ?? There were others , such as Harold Hecuba , and Tongo , but those are the best !! )