There are certain American television characters who are so iconic that it would be difficult to find any adult in the United States who would not recognise them. Among those characters is Gilligan, the hero of what could possibly be the most successful sitcom of all time, Gilligan's Island. The man who portrayed that character has passed on. Bob Denver died Friday of complications from cancer at age 70.
Bob Denver was born in New Rochelle, New York. He was both an atheletic coach and a math and history teacher before he became an actor. He broke into acting in 1959 with both a part n the movie A Private's Affair and the pivotal role of the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs in the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Krebs was easily the funniest character on the show, dressing like a stereotyical beatnik and always playing bongo drums. For Krebs the word "work" was truly a four letter word.
For many actors a single, iconic role in a TV series would pretty much be the sum of their career. This would not be the case for Bob Denver. In 1964 he was cast in a sitcom that place seven very different castaways on a deserted island. Denver played Gilligan, the bumbling first mate of the S. S. Minnow for three seasons. The series was cancelled not due to low ratings, but rather to make room for Gunsmoke (which was among CBS President William S. Paley's favourite shows). Despite its cancellation, the series would find new life in reruns. In fact, it may be the most rerun American series of all time, even surpassing I Love Lucy. For Denver the series' success was a double edged sword. He was loved by millions as the goofy first mate, but he was so identified with the role that he often find it hard to get parts.
Denver was primarily a television actor. In addition to The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Gilligan's Island, he starred in the TV series The Good Guys, Dusty's Trail, Far Out Space Nuts, and Twilight Theater. He also provided the voice of Gilligan in two animated spinoffs from the sitcom--The New Adventures of Gilligan and Gilligan's Planet, as well as three reunion movies. He also reprised his role as Maynard G. Krebs in a Dobie Gillis reunion movie. Bob Denver made guest appearances on several TV shows, including Dr. Kildare, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Alf, and The Simpsons. On both Roseanne and Baywatch he appeared in salutes to Gilligan's Island.
While Denver was mainly a television actor, he also appeared in a few films over the years. He played in For Those Who Think Young, Take Her, She's Mine, Who's Minding the Mint, and Did you Hear the One about the Travelling Saleslady.
In the Seventies Bob Denver replaced Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam on Broadway. While his run was successful, he never performed much on stage thereafter.
Like most Americans of my generation, I first encountered Bob Denver as Gilligan. To this day Gilligan's Island is still maligned by critics, some of who would actually count it among the worst shows of all time. What these critics seem to overlook (or just plain ignore, as the case may be) is that Gilligan's Island was a genuinely funny show. And much of the reason the series was so funny was Bob Denver as Gilligan. Denver had a gift for slapstick and physical comedy. He also had a great sense of comic timing. Indeed, this was also evident in his earlier role as Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. This brings me to another of Denver's strongpoints, one that is overlooked given the many bumbling characters he sometimes played. Bob Denver did have something of a range in the characters he could play. Indeed, in many ways Maynard G. Krebs and Gilligan are two very different characters--Maynard was the epitome of "cool" in his era, while Giligan was anything but "cool." At any rate, Bob Denver played Gilligan so well that it is hard to picture any other actor in the role. It is hard to believe that the part was originally offered to Jerry Van Dyke (a fine comic actor in his own right).
To say that I am greatly saddened by Bob Denver's death would be a bit of an understatement. I grew up watching Gilligan's Island. Later I would discover The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in reruns. On both shows Denver played my favourite characters--Gilligan and Maynard G. Krebs respectively. And while I must admit that I do not consider myself either bumbling or lazy, I can honestly say that there have been times when I identified with both characters. I think most Americans my age probably have at one time or another. I suppose that in playing Gilligan, Bob Denver not only created one of television's most memorable characters, but one of the few true American icons to emerge from network television.