Friday, September 26, 2014

50 Years Stranded On Gilligan's Island

There an be no doubt that Gilligan's Island is one of the all time champions among syndicated reruns. According to its creator, Sherwood Schwartz in his book Inside Gilligan's Island, the show has been repeated more than any other show in television history, even I Love Lucy. There are probably very few Americans who cannot name its characters by heart, and a good many of them probably know the lyrics to its theme song as well. Gilligan's Island debuted 50 years ago tonight, on 26 September 1964 at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central. Fifty years after is premiere, Gilligan's Island shows no sign of disappearing from television screens any time soon.

For those few of you unfamiliar with Gilligan's Island, the show centred on seven castaways shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the Pacific.  The show centred on the first mate of the S.S. Minnow, Gilligan (played by Bob Denver), who was both inept and accident prone. The Skipper (played by Alan Hale Jr.) was the captain of the S.S. Minnow and acted as the castaways' de facto leader. Thurston Howell III (played by Jim Backus) was an incredibly wealthy and very eccentric millionaire. His wife was Lovey (played by Natalie Schafer) who genuinely cared about her fellow castaways.  Ginger Grant (played by Tina Louise) was a glamorous movie star, while Mary Ann (played by Dawn Well) was a sweet, wholesome, and very pretty Kansas farm girl. The Professor (played by Russell Johnson) was a genius and a scientist who built many gadgets on the island.

Gilligan's Island was created by Sherwood Schwartz, who already had a long career in comedy by 1964. He had started out in radio writing gags for Bob Hope. During World War II he wrote radio shows for the Armed Forces Radio Network. Following the war he worked on such radio shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alan Young Show, and Beulah. Mr. Schwartz made the transition to television writing for the sitcom I Married Joan starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus. He literally worked for years on The Red Skelton Show, both as one of its writers and as a script supervisor. He also served as a script consultant on the classic sitcom My Favourite Martian.

It was not long after his stint on My Favourite Martian that he conceived of an idea for a situation comedy about a diverse group of people stranded on a deserted island.  Nearly from the very beginning Mr. Schwartz conceived of the Skipper's mate as the focus of the show. He also conceived of the Skipper's mate as incompetent from nearly the beginning. As to his name, he found "Gilligan" in a phone book. Mr. Schwartz also decided that the characters would be portrayed in broad strokes. They would essentially be extremes in character types.

Since his usual agent, George Rosenberg, thoroughly detested the idea of Gilligan's Island, Sherwood Schwartz turned to Peter Leff of Creative Management Associates to sell the show. It was only a matter of days before Mr. Leff worked out an agreement between United Artists, Phil Silvers' production company Gladaysa Productions, and CBS. Unfortunately, after that Gilligan's Island would have a difficult time making it to the air. While CBS head of programming Hunt Stromberg Jr. liked the idea of Gilligan's Island, President of CBS Television James Aubrey was a different matter. He liked the idea of the Gilligan, the Skipper, and their charter boat, but not the idea of a deserted island. He thought it would be better if the show revolved around the charter boat, with Gilligan and the Skipper taking out a different group of passengers on cruises each week. Quite simply Mr. Aubrey wanted Gilligan's Travels, not Gilligan's Island.

Fortunately Sherwood Schwartz stood his ground and CBS approved the shooting of a pilot for Gilligan's Island. Mr. Schwartz then set about casting the pilot. Amazingly enough, Bob Denver was not Mr. Schwartz's first choice to play Gilligan. Instead that was Jerry Van Dyke, then best known for appearing on his brother's show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, as Rob Petrie's brother Stacey Petrie. Jerry Van Dyke turned the role down, so the role ultimately went to Bob Denver, then best known as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis. The Skipper proved difficult to cast. Several actors were auditioned before Alan Hale Jr. was cast in the role. The son of screen actor Alan Hale Sr., Alan Hale Jr. had already appeared in several films and had even starred in two TV shows, Biff Baker, U.S.A. and Casey Jones. For the role of eccentric millionaire Thurston Howell III only one actor was ever considered. Sherwood Schwartz had written the part specifically for Jim Backus. Then best known as the voice of Mr. Magoo, Jim Backus had played a similar character, Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show on radio. Over the years Mr. Schwartz had worked with Jim Backus multiple times.

Amazingly enough the characters of Ginger and Mary Ann did not appear in the pilot, and The Professor was played by a different actor. Instead of Ginger and Mary Ann, there were two secretaries: a practical redhead named Ginger (played by Kit Smythe) and a bubble headed blonde named Bunny (played by Nancy McCarthy). The Professor was played by John Gabriel. The theme song was different as well. It was a calypso tune written by John Williams, with lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz and sung in the style of Sir Lancelot. The setting of the pilot also differed from that of the regular series. Although still set on a deserted island, it was an island in the Caribbean rather than the Pacific.

The editing of the pilot would prove to be a battle for Sherwood Schwartz. The original film would be cut and recut over Mr. Schwartz's objections before it was shown to CBS executives in December 1963. at which point the pilot was rejected. Hunt Stromberg Jr. then made suggestions, including doing retakes and shooting additional scenes on top of re-editing the film. This version would also be rejected by CBS. Finally Sherwood Schwartz had editor Larry Heath recut the pilot the way he wanted it. This new edit of the pilot was submitted to CBS in February 1964, just as the network was finalising its fall schedule. Very nearly at the last minute, then, Gilligan's Island was added to the CBS fall schedule.

Gilligan's Island was retooled before it reached airwaves in September. The Professor was recast, with Russell Johnson assuming the role. Mr. Johnson had already appeared in several films and TV shows, and was a regular on the Western TV show Black Saddle. The characters of secretaries Ginger and Bunny were jettisoned and replaced with two new characters. Ginger Grant was a glamorous movie star in the Marilyn Monroe mould. Cast in the role was Tina Louise, who had appeared in several films and TV shows, as well as on Broadway. Mary Ann Summers was a sweet and fairly innocent Kansas farm girl. Cast in the part was Dawn Wells, a former Miss Nevada who had guest starred on such shows as Maverick, Wagon Train, and 77 Sunset Strip. Mary Ann easily proved to be one of the most popular characters on the show, if not the most popular. Dawn Wells received more fan mail than any of the cast, receiving over double that of Tina Louise.

Gilligan's Island also received a new theme song, the now familiar tune written by George Wylie with lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz. The original version used during the first season was performed by a vocal group called The Wellingtons, who would later guest star in the second season episode "Don't Bug The Mosquitoes". The theme song would be changed slightly starting with the second season. In the first season neither Russell Johnson nor Dawn Wells were acknowledged in the opening credits, with the theme song's lyrics simply referring to The Professor and Mary Ann as "...the rest". This did not set well with star Bob Denver, whose contract specified that he could determine where his name appeared in the credits. Mr. Denver told the producers that if the Professor and Mary Ann were not acknowledged in the opening credits, then he would simply become part of "the rest". The theme song was then re-recorded with new lyrics, acknowledging the Professor and Mary Ann,  by an uncredited vocal group.

Curiously Gilligan's Island also saw what was its first imitator debut before it had even made it to the air itself. CBS-TV president James Aubrey had made no secret that while he hated the idea of Gilligan's Island, he liked the idea of a sitcom about a charter boat service. Mr. Aubrey then turned to his friend, producer Keefe Brasselle, to produce his concept of a sitcom centred around a charter boat business. The end result was The Baileys of Balboa. There were significant differences between The Baileys of Balboa and Gilligan's Island, although there were some remarkable similarities as well. The show centred on Paul Ford (who had played Colonel Hall on The Phil Silvers Show) as Sam Bailey, the owner of the charter boat Island Princess. He was essentially an older and somewhat crustier version of the Skipper. Sterling Holloway (who had done considerable voice work for Disney) played Buck Singleteon, his somewhat inept and accident prone first mate (sound familiar?). The show even had its own Thurston Howell III figure, although his role was much more antagonistic to Sam and Buck than Mr. Howell ever was to the Skipper and Gilligan. John Dehner played Commodore Cecil Wyntoon, the wealthy head of the local yacht club who was always at odds with Sam. The cast was filled out by  Les Brown, Jr. as Sam's son Jim, who was in love with Commodore Wyntoon's daughter Barbara (played by Judy Carne).

The Baileys of Balboa would not prove to be successful. The show received largely negative reviews and did poorly in the ratings. It was cancelled after only one season and 26 episodes. The show would also proved to be source of trouble for James Aubrey. Not only did Mr. Aubrey buy The Baileys of Balboa and two of Keefe Brasselle's other shows without a pilot being filmed, but he bought them without hearing a pitch or even seeing scripts for the shows. The preferential treatment Mr. Aubrey had shown producer Keefe Brasselle resulted in a lawsuit brought by CBS shareholders against James Aubrey and would be one of the many factors in his termination as CBS President on 27 February 1965.

While Gilligan's Island would prove much more successful than The Baileys of Balboa, its reviews were no more better and, in fact, may well have been worse. Upon its premiere Gilligan's Island received some of the worst notices for a TV show ever. In The New York Times legendary critic Jack Gould wrote of the show, "Gilligan's Island is quite possibly the most preposterous situation comedy of the season." Terence O'Flaherty wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle, "It is difficult for me to believe that Gilligan's Island was written, directed, and filmed by adults. ..It somehow marks a new low in the networks' estimate of public intelligence." Hal Humphrey was even more brutal  in The Los Angeles Times, writing "Gilligan's Island is a television series that never should have reached the air this season, or any other season." Not all of the reviews for Gilligan's Island were bad. No less than Ed Omstead in The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the show, "Even viewers who expected something heavier than breezing entertainment must  have stayed with the show from here in." Terry Turner in The Chicago Daily News wrote, "The biggest surprise on CBS, which premiered six new shows this week, was Gilligan's Island...a half hour comedy on Saturdays which has come up with an excellent comedy team in Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver."

The overwhelmingly negative reviews for Gilligan's Island would have a deleterious effect on the fate of the show. CBS founder and chairman William Paley wanted CBS to be known for producing shows of a high quality and the reviews for Gilligan's Island proved to be something of an embarrassment to him. CBS had long had a policy of keeping its hit shows in the same time slot year after year. For example, Gunsmoke had spent its first several years in the same time slot on Saturday night. Because of the bad reviews it had received Gilligan's Island would be an exception to this rule, receiving a new time slot each season.

Regardless of its bad reviews, Gilligan's Island proved to be a hit. Indeed, for its first season it ranked #17 for the year in the Nielsen ratings. For its second season Gilligan's Island was moved to Thursday nights at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central where it also performed well. It ranked #19 in the Nielsens for the season. For its third (and what would be its final) season Gilligan's Island was moved yet again, this time to Monday night at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. While Gilligan's Island did not even rank in the top thirty for the year, it still won its time slot and did well enough to warrant renewal. In fact, for the first time the show's history it was scheduled to return in the same time slot it had on Monday night for its third season. Unfortunately there would not be a fourth season.

It was during the 1966-1967 season that CBS programming executives cancelled the long running Western Gunsmoke. The show was still doing respectably well. Indeed, it had ranked #34 in the ratings for the year. Unfortunately CBS programmers had decided its audience was both too old and too rural and because of this they had decided to remove it from the air. This proved to be mistake on the programmers' fault, as both viewers and critics were outraged by the cancellation. Senator Robert Byrd even criticised the network's decision on the Senate floor. Unfortunately for the programmers among those angered by the cancellation of Gunsmoke was William Paley himself. Gunsmoke was among the favourite shows of both William S. Paley and his wife Babe. When he saw that Gunsmoke was not on the fall 1967-1968 schedule, he immediately called CBS vice president Mike Dann and demanded that the show be renewed. There can be no doubt that CBS programmers realised their jobs were on the line.

Unfortunately for fans of the show,  the solution to the CBS programmers' dilemma would result in the cancellation of Gilligan's Island. Gilligan's Island had received absolutely atrocious reviews, a situation that had earned the sitcom no love from William Paley. At the same time CBS' affiliates had shown an extreme dislike for the new sitcom Doc, which was set to follow Gilligan's Island on Monday nights. It was then decided that Gilligan's Island and Doc (which had not even yet aired) would be cancelled and Gunsmoke would return in the 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 Central Monday time slot. In the new time slot Gunsmoke rebounded in the ratings, jumping to #4 in the ratings for the 1967-1968 season.

Although Gilligan's Island was cancelled, it was hardly gone. The show went on to possibly the most successful syndication run of all time. What is more, it would also see several revivals over the years. In 1974 a Saturday morning cartoon based on the show, The New Adventures of Gilligan, debuted on ABC. Except for Tina Louise and Dawn Wells, the original cast provided the voices of their respective characters.

In 1978 a television movie,  Rescue from Gilligan's Island, reunited the cast in their original roles except for Tina Louise (Ginger Grant was played by Judith Baldwin). Another reunion movie, The Castaways on Gilligan's Island, aired in 1979, once more with Judith Baldwin playing Ginger. The Castaways on Gilligan's Island involved the Howells and the other rescued castaways converting the island into a resort. The movie was essentially a pilot for a semi-anthology series similar to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. It did not sell as a series, although The Castaways on Gilligan's Island received good ratings. A final reunion movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, aired in 1981. In The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island Ginger was played by Constance Forslund

In 1982 another Saturday morning cartoon based on Gilligan's Island aired. On Gilligan's Planet the Professor had built a spaceship in order to escape the island. True to form, Gilligan bungles things so that the spaceship goes to another planet instead of landing somewhere on Earth. Except for Tina Louise the original cast voiced their characters. Dawn Wells voiced both Mary Ann and Ginger. 

In 2002 a documentary with dramatic recreations, Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History, aired on CBS. Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History featured Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, and Bob Denver, as well as creator Sherwood Schwartz, discussing the history of the show.

Over the years the characters of Gilligan's Island would appear in tribute episodes on other TV shows. In a 1987 episode of ALF the title alien dreamed he was on  the island where he encountered slightly skewed versions of Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Professor (played by Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, and Russell Johnson respectively). It was also in 1987 in a dream sequence on Growing Pains that Alan Hale Jr. played a cabbie named "Jonas Grumby (the given name of the Skipper)". In a 1992 episode of Baywatch Bob Denver and Dawn Wells appeared in a dream sequence as Gilligan and Mary Ann. Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, and Russell Johnson also appeared as Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Professor in an unaired 1997 episode of the short lived comedy Meego.

The hit comedy Roseanne would do a very unique tribute to Gilligan's Island with its 1995 episode "Sherwood Schwartz--A Loving Tribute". The centrepiece of the episode is a fantasy sequence in which the characters of Roseanne appear as the characters of Gilligan's Island. The end of the episode not only features Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, and Tina Louise as characters from Roseanne, but also a cameo by Sherwood Schwartz.

Over the years Gilligan's Island has also inspired a number of imitators and, for lack of a better term, clones. One of these was created by Sherwood Schwartz himself and his brother Elroy Schwartz. Dusty's Trail was a Western sitcom about a a wagon and stagecoach in the Old West that got separated from the wagon train to which they belonged. The characters roughly corresponded to the characters of Gilligan's Island, with the inept scout Dusty (played by Gilligan), the wagonmaster (Mr. Callahan, played by Forrest Tucker), a rich banker and his wife (Mr. and Mrs. Brookhaven, played by Ivor Francis and Lynn Wood), an intellectual (Andy Boone played by Bill Cort), a saloon girl (Lulu, played by Jeannine Riley), and a wholesome teacher (Betsy, played by Lori Saunders). Dusty's Trail aired in syndication for only one season in 1974-1975.

One of the more bizarre shows inspired by Gilligan's Island was a reality/competition show entitled The Real Gilligan's Island. The show resembled Survivor and similar shows in placing people in a remote location, although in the case of The Real Gilligan's Island the people were chosen for their resemblance to the characters on the classic sitcom. The show debuted in 2004 and ran for two seasons of four to five episodes each.

Gilligan's Island also inspired a NES video game, The Adventures of Gilligan, released in 1990, as well as a pinball machine, Gilligan's Island, made by Midway and released in 1991.

Upon its debut Gilligan's Island received some of the worst reviews for a television show ever. If this seems unusual, it must be considered that only two years earlier another television classic, The Beverly Hillbillies, also received largely negative reviews. While The Beverly Hillbillies' reputation has largely improved since then, however, there are still a good number of people who regard Gilligan's Island as one of the worst shows in the history of television. Indeed, an article by Ginia Bellafante in the 13 March 1995 issue of Time labelled Sherwood Schwartz "The Inventor of Bad TV" for his role in creating both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch.

Of course, while many still regard Gilligan's Island as a bad show, there are many others (including myself) who regard it as a television classic. Let's face it. Truly bad shows are rarely remembered, let alone have syndication runs lasting nearly fifty years. The Hathaways, Pink Lady, and Cop Rock are now largely forgotten by everyone except television historians, and perhaps those unfortunates who saw the shows when they first aired. This is in stark contrast to Gilligan's Island, which long ago became such a part of American pop culture that people know the lyrics to its theme song by heart. Quite simply, I submit that Gilligan's Island has remained on the air all these years because it is actually a good show and any critics who still turn their nose up at it are simply wrong.

It is no coincidence that both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island received incredibly poor reviews when they debuted. After all, to a large degree both shows were something relatively new to television: comedies that were so broad in nature as to be absurd. In both cases the comedy emerged from the sheer outlandishness of the shows' plots. Neither show was meant to approach anything close to realism, and this was particularly true of Gilligan's Island. The sheer preposterousness of both the show's concept and the plots of its episodes were part of the show's humour.

Indeed, in an essay on The Beverly Hillbillies in TV Guide cultural critic and writer Gilbert Seldes pointed out while the typical formula for comedy was "real people in unreal situations", the formula for comedy on The Beverly Hillbillies was "unreal people in unreal situations". The description of "unreal people in unreal situations" could also be applied quite easily to Gilligan's Island. The characters of Gilligan's Island were intentionally meant to be broad types rather than realistic characters. In many respects, the castaways are not unlike the character types of commedia dell'arte or even British farce. And like commedia dell'arte the plots of Gilligan's Island could be so preposterous as to be unbelievable.

Along with The Beverly Hillbillies, the sheer preposterousness of Gilligan's Island placed it on the cutting edge of a relatively new sort of situation comedy on television in 1964. Quite simply Gilligan's Island was one of the earliest absurdist comedies of the Sixties, comedies in which reality did not stand in the way of getting a good laugh. It would be followed by yet other absurdist comedies, including Green Acres, Batman, The Monkees, and yet others. It then seems likely that in 1964 many of the critics did not quite know what to make of Gilligan's Island. It would seem that in 2014 many critics still don't.

Of course, in the end it perhaps does not matter that Gilligan's Island was absurdist in nature or that it was among the earliest shows in a cycle toward such sorts of shows. In the end what matters is that for many people (including myself) is that it is just plain funny. Unlike comedies that rely upon topical humour, the situations portrayed on Gilligan's Island remain essentially timeless. And it must be pointed out that physical humour almost never changes. A pratfall was funny in 1914, was still funny in 1964, and remains funny in 2014. It is true that the comedy of Gilligan's Island is very broad. And it is true that it is not highbrow at all. That having been said, the ultimate litmus test for comedy is not how broad it is or how intellectual it is, but in the end how funny it is. It would seem that for most of the population Gilligan's Island has succeeded on that account for years.

Regardless of what critics said of Gilligan's Island in 1964 and what some still say about it in 2014, Gilligan's Island is still airing around the world after fifty years. Currently it is shown on ME-TV. It is also available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and through various streaming services. Like the castaways who remained stranded on that desert isle, Gilligan's Island shows no sign of going anywhere soon.


John E. Bredehoft said...

I did not know the story of how Bob Denver pushed for the change to "and the rest." Fascinating.

In his autobiography Growing Up Brady, Barry Williams recounts the many arguments between Sherwood Schwartz and Robert Reed. Part of this focused on Schwartz's sociological interpretation of the Brady Bunch, and of Gilligan's Island, as microcosms of the world we live in. In Reed's view, Schwartz was unable to execute on these concepts, instead falling to tired gags.

wbhist said...

The casting of Paul Ford in Aubrey's (and his "little buddy" Keefe Brasselle's) "Gilligan" ripoff "The Baileys of Balboa" may not have been an accident, happenstance or coincidence, but - given Ford's having once played Colonel Hall on the old "Bilko" TV series - may instead have been a none-too-subtle dig at Phil Silvers for his financial backing (via Gladasya Productions) of "Gilligan's Island."