Sunday, September 29, 2019

The 60th Anniversary of Dobie Gillis

Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs
It was sixty years ago today, on September 29 1959, that the Many Loves of Dobie Gillis debuted on CBS. With the second season the title would be shortened to Dobie Gillis and with the fourth season it would be known as Max Shulman's Dobie Gillis, but by any title it was a revolutionary television series. Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest shows to centre on teenagers and, as a result, it would have an impact on nearly every teen sitcom to air every since. It was also the first to feature a counterculture figure (in the form of beatnik Maynard G. Krebs) as a regular character. As if this were not enough, Dobie Gillis was innovative in yet other ways, to the point that it can be considered the first Sixties sitcom (even though it debuted in 1959).

The origins of Dobie Gillis go back to a series of short stories written by Max Shulman. It was in the June 1945 issue of Good Housekeeping Dobie Gillis first appeared in the short story "The Face is Familiar, But." Over the next several years further Dobie Gillis stories would be published in such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, Today's Woman, and American Magazine. The short stories would be collected into the anthology The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1951.

Dwayne Hickman and Tuesday Weld
In the short stories Dobie Gillis was a college student and a lovable loser who was more than a little crazy about girls. Beyond this details about Dobie's life could vary from story to story. In some stories he is portrayed as a freshman in college, while in others he is a sophomore. Not only did his year in college vary, but so could his age. At times he was only seventeen. At other times he was eighteen or even nineteen. Similarly his major would vary. In various stories he is majoring in journalism, Egyptology, chemistry, English, or mechanical engineering. Similarly, his father's job might vary from short story to short story.

While continuity was not a strong suit of the Dobie Gillis short stories, they proved popular. The short stories would provide the basis for the 1953 MGM musical The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, starring Bobby Van in the title role. It was the continued popularity of the Dobie Gillis short stories that led George Burns to buy the television rights to the stories in 1955. Max Shulman was to serve as the producer and writer for the proposed television series. He also owned 33% of the project, with George Burns's McCadden Productions owning the other 67%. This proposed "Dobie Gillis" television series would never come to fruition. Mr. Shulman was considering such young actors as Dick Sargent, Jack Dimond, John Stevens, Martin Milner, Mark Rydell, Jeff Harris, or Dwayne Hickman for the role. George Burns wanted his son Ronnie Burns to play Dobie Gillis. Max Shulman strenuously objected to this, as he felt with Ronnie Burns in the lead role the show would be swiftly cancelled as, in his words, "The kid just has no talent..." Since Max Shulman had veto power over who would play Dobie, Messrs. Shulman and Burns found themselves at a bit of a stalemate with Mr. Shulman refusing approval of the series as long as Ronnie Burns was in the lead role. Ultimately, George Burns's option for a "Dobie Gillis" series would run out and a pilot was not even made.

Of course, we know from history that the character of Dobie Gillis would eventually find his way to television. Max Shulman's proposal for a "Dobie Gillis" television series would find its way to Martin Manulis, who in 1958 had just became the head of 20th Century Fox Television. Mr. Manulis was already an established name in television, having produced such legendary shows as Suspense, Studio One, and Playhouse 90.

Dobie, Maynard, and Zelda
That having been said, there would be changes made for the television series from Max Shulman's original short stories. Martin Manulis felt that college students in the late Fifties would be too mature to engage in the sort of antics that Dobie did in the short stories, but that it would fit high school kids perfectly. Dobie Gillis then became a high school student rather than a college student. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was pitched to NBC, who rejected the series. Fortunately, it would be greenlit by CBS. It debuted on Tuesday, September 29 1959 at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central.

Cast in the lead role of Dobie Gillis was Dwayne Hickman. Mr. Hickman was already familiar to audiences from various movies and the television sitcom The Bob Cummings Show. On The Bob Cummings Show, Dwayne Hickman played Bob's girl-crazy nephew Chuck. Unfortunately for Dwayne Hickman, CBS required him to dye his brown hair blond in order to distance himself from the character of Chuck. As it turned out, the bleaching was causing damage to both his hair and his scalp, so that with the second season he was allowed to keep his naturally brown hair. While Dobie Gillis was in his late teens on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, in reality Dwayne Hickman was 24 when they shot the pilot for the show.

Here it must also pointed out that while The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is sometimes cited as the first show about teenagers, it really wasn't. Teenagers have been a source of humour ever since the comic strip Harold Teen had debuted in 1919. Among the many teen humour movies were the "Andy Hardy" and "Henry Aldrich" series. Archie Andrews was one of the biggest successes in comic books during their Golden Age. Old Time Radio featured such teen oriented comedies as Archie Andrews (based on the comic books),  A Date with Judy, and Meet Corliss Archer. Both A Date with Judy and Meet Corliss Archer would make the transition to television. In fact, there were two Meet Corliss Archer shows. The first aired on CBS for a time in 1951. The second was a syndicated series produced by Ziv from 1953 to 1954. A Date with Judy ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. That having been said, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis may not have been the first teen television sitcom, but it was different from anything before (more on that in a bit).
Dobie and his parents
Indeed, as mentioned earlier, it was the first television situation comedy of any type to feature a member of the counterculture as a regular character. Maynard G. Krebs (played by Bob Denver) was a beatnik. Maynard began the show with an unkempt appearance (even down to a goatee), often wearing sweatshirts that had holes in them. In fact, in the first episode ("Caper at the Bijou") he was briefly put in jail for vagrancy. He listened to such jazz artists as Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. He even played bongo drums and occasionally the piano and the trumpet. Maynard defied most the social norms of the day, and was apt to say, "Work!" in a frightened voice. He spoke hip slang that was unknown on television at the time. Bob Denver had attended Loyola with Dobie Gillis star Dwayne Hickman.

Bob Denver very nearly had to leave the show after only three episodes had been shot. He received his draft notice and as a result Maynard was written out of the show as having been drafted. Michael J. Pollard took his place as Maynard's cousin Jerome Krebs. Fortunately due to an old neck injury, Bob Denver was determined to be unfit for service. He then returned to the show as Maynard and Michael J. Pollard, as Jerome, was never seen again.

Not only did The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis differ from previous sitcoms in that it featured a member of the counterculture, but in the relationship between Dobie and his parents. On previous sitcoms, from Father Knows Best to Leave It to Beaver, teenagers respected and got along fairly well with their parents, even if they didn't always obey them. This was a sharp contrast to the relationship between Dobie and Herbert T. Gillis (played by Frank Faylen). Herbert T. Gillis was a veteran of World War II who owned a grocery. Herbert's tendency to pinch pennies always frustrated Dobie's desire to have and spend money. Dobie's tendency to avoid work and spend money always frustrated Herbert. At least in the first season, before a sponsor complained about the line, it was not unusual for Herbert to exclaim, "I gotta kill that boy. I just gotta..." It perhaps frustrated Herbert even more that his wife and Dobie's mother Winifred (Florida Friebus), often called "Winnie," doted upon the boy. It was not unusual for her to sneak money from the cash register to him.

Tuesday Weld as Thalia
Beyond Dobie, Maynard, and Dobie's parents, Dobie Gillis featured an extensive supporting cast of both his fellow students and his teachers. Among the best known of the supporting characters was blonde, beautiful Thalia Menninger (played by Tuesday Weld). Thalia was the girl of his dreams that he was always trying to win. Unfortunately for Dobie, while Thalia was fond of him, she wanted someone with money. That having been said, Thalia was no mere gold digger,  as she had a rationale for marrying into money. Quite simply, she had to do so for her family. In Thalia's own words, "My father's sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn't getting any younger either. I have a sister who's married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge." Tuesday Weld did not remain with the show as a semi-regular after the first season, although she would make guest appearances as Thalia in the third and fourth seasons. It is not entirely clear why Tuesday Weld left Dobie Gillis, but according to some reports it was because a sponsor thought she was "too sexy (it must be pointed out that Miss Weld was only 15 when the show began shooting)."

Of course, Thalia was not the only girl in Dobie's life. There was also Zelda Gilroy (played by Shelia James), who was not only intelligent but a fairly good athlete was well. Zelda carried a torch for Dobie, even though he did not find her particularly attractive. Despite this Zelda was convinced that she and Dobie were destined to be together because of "propinquity" (the physical or psychological proximity between people). Quite simply, because Dobie's last name was "Gillis" and Zelda's last name was "Gilroy," they were often seated next to each other in classes. Zelda would often wrinkle her nose at Dobie, causing him to wrinkle his back at her, which she maintained as proof that Dobie loved her, but had yet to realise it.

Sheila James as Zelda
Along with Dobie and his parents, Zelda was the only character to appear in Max Shulman's short stories, although it was only in one. Zelda appeared in the short story "Love is a Science," which was among the stories adapted as an episode for the first season. Zelda was only meant to appear once, but became a semi-regular character later in the first season. Zelda proved to be very popular, so much so that a pilot for spin-off featuring the character, Zelda, was shot in late 1961 as a potential series for the 1962-1963 season. CBS did not pick up the show.

During the run of the series, Dobie Gillis would have two antagonists, both of who were wealthy and entitled. The first was Milton Armitage (played by Warren Beatty). Milton was handsome, rich, and snobbish. He was also Dobie's rival for Thalia's affections. Here it must be pointed out that Warren Beatty only appeared in five episodes during the first season. After the first season the role of Dobie's antagonist was filled by Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. (played by Steve Franken). Unlike Milton, Chatsworth was a much more sympathetic character. Although he was often Dobie's rival, he was a good deal friendlier to Dobie and Maynard than Milton ever was. Chatsworth's mother, Clarissa Osborne (played by Doris Parker) would also appear in several episodes of the series.

Among the semi-regular and recurring characters on Dobie Gillis were Dobie's teachers. Most notable among them were Leander Pomfritt. Mr. Pomfritt was played by Herbert Anderson and by William Schallert for the rest of the show's run. Mr. Pomfritt was Dobie's English teacher in high school and would also teach at the college that Dobie and Maynard attended. Mr. Pomfritt was very much an intellectual. He could also be stern and had a habit of making deadpan remarks (he referred to his students as "My young barbarians..)," but he was also very fond and supportive of his students. Dr. Imogene Burkhart (played by Jean Byron) was Dobie and Maynard's biology teacher in high school and later their sociology teacher in college. Jean Byron was friends with Max Shulman and the character was created specifically for her. In fact, "Imogene Burkhart" was Jean Byron's given name. Dr. Burkhart was a sharp contrast to earlier teachers on television. Not only did she hold a doctorate, but she was also a bit glamorous. William Shallert and Jean Byron would later appear together as Patty Lane's parents on The Patty Duke Show.

One character that did not remain with the show was Dobie's older brother Davey Gillis, played by Dwayne Hickman's real life brother Darryl Hickman. Davey was away attending college and only appeared in three episodes of the first season. Afterwards it was as if Davey did not exist. Dobie was treated as if he were an only child.

Of course, in addition to the regular and semi-regular cast, Dobie Gillis would feature several guest stars throughout its run, including some who would go onto become famous. Ron Howard made several appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in its first season. It would be in the following season that he would gain fame as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Ryan O'Neil guest starred on the first season episode "The Hunger Strike." Among the many young actresses to appear on the show were Barbara Bain, Linda Henning, Michele Lee, Sally Kellerman, Roberta Shore, and Marlo Thomas. Yvonne Craig was a frequent guest star on the show. She appeared on Dobie Gillis five times, each time as a different character. In fact, she even appeared in the presentation film used to sell the show.  

Dobie Gillis would evolve over its four years on the air. Two things would remain consistent throughout the show. The first was that Dobie would break the fourth wall and share his observations with the audience. When the series began this was often in Central City Park in front of a reproduction of Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker,' with Dobie with assuming The Thinker's pose. As the series progressed the park would be gone. Dobie would still break the fourth wall and make observations to the audience, but in front of The Thinker on a plain set. The second is that the Gillis grocery store would remain a major setting on the show for the entirety of its run.

Aside from the departure of Tuesday Weld and a more pronounced role for Sheila James, the second season would see some major changes on Dobie Gillis. Midway through the season Dobie, Maynard, and Chatsworth graduated from high school and all three of them enlisted in the United States Army. Their stint in the Army would be brief, as with the beginning of the third season Dobie, Maynard, Zelda, and Chatsworth were all attending S. Peter Pryor Junior College. The fourth season would see the addition of Duncan Gillis (played by Bobby Diamond), Dobie's teenage cousin.

Just as Dobie Gllis evolved over time, so did the character of Maynard G. Krebs. As mentioned earlier, he began the show as a beatnik who dressed so shabbily that he was jailed for vagrancy and he listened to jazz. Over the first two seasons Maynard changed very little. During the second season his shirts would have fewer holes, but he was still more or less the same beatnik he had been in the first season. At the same time, however, there would be an increasing number of episodes that focused primarily on Maynard ("The Mystic Powers of Maynard G. Krebs" being an example). With the third season Maynard was less the beatnik he had been than an eccentric nonconformist. Not only did his shirts no longer have holes, but the references to jazz fell by the wayside as well. The series also began to feature more episodes centred on Maynard, in which Dobie remained the show's narrator but acted more as an observer. Episodes centred on Maynard only increased in the fourth season, with some even venturing into the area of the fantastic ("Dr. Jekyll an Mr. Gillis" being an example). That is not to say that in the later seasons one did not see hints of the original Maynard. In the third season episode "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry... for Tomorrow Ker-Boom," when Dr. Burkhart asks her class to bring items to place in a time capsule, Maynard declines because he is convinced that in a few years a nuclear holocaust will wipe out civilisation.

While the show changed over its run, Dobie Gillis also remained relatively popular during its run as well. It was a mark of the show's popularity that National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) published 26 issues of the comic book The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis from 1960 to 1964.  The show also did relatively well in the Nielsen ratings. In its second season it ranked no. 23 out of all the shows on the air. In its third season it ranked no. 21 for the season. Unfortunately, for its fourth season CBS moved Dobie Gillis from the Tuesday night time slot in which it had been scheduled since its debut to a new time slot on Wednesday at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central. There it aired opposite the last half hour of NBC's hit Western The Virginian. Dobie Gillis declined in the ratings and was cancelled as a result.

Dobie Gillis would go on to a successful run in syndication. It proved successful enough that in 1977 a half hour pilot, Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis? was produced. In Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis? Dobie has since married Zelda and is helping his father with his grocery store. While the pilot did not sell, Dobie Gillis continued to be popular as a syndicated rerun and would eventually air on such cable channels as The Family Channel and Nick-at-Nite. In 1988 the television reunion movie Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis aired on CBS. In the movie Dobie and Zelda are now married and running the grocery (his parents having died) as well as a pharmacy with it. Their lives are complicated when Thalia Messinger returns to town and offers a $50,000 bounty to kill Dobie if he won't divorce Zelda and marry her. Since Tuesday Weld declined to appear in the television movie, Connie Stevens played the role of Thalia. Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis also featured Bob Denver as Maynard, Steve Franken as Chatsworth, and William Schallert as Mr. Pomfritt.

As to why Dobie Gillis was so successful, that comes down to the fact that in many respects it was a revolutionary show. While there had been shows centred on teenagers before, Dobie Gillis was the first to portray a teenager in conflict with a parent. On previous sitcoms teenagers got along fairly well with their parents, even if sometimes they might disobey them. On Dobie Gillis, Dobie regarded his father as a bit of a stick in the mud, while Herbert regarded his son as shiftless and lazy. It is perhaps the first teen sitcom in which teenagers regarded the older generation as being out of touch with the times. What is more, Dobie didn't disobey Herbert once in a while, but on a regular basis.

Of course, as mentioned earlier Dobie Gillis was the first show to regularly feature a member of the counterculture in the form of Maynard G. Krebs. It was Maynard who paved the way for everything from the lead characters on Route 66 to The Monkees to The Mod Squad. With regards to Dobie Gillis, in many ways the time was right for a show that included a voice for the counterculture. While today many people tend to think of the Baby Boomers when they think of the counterculture, they were led by members of the Silent Generation like the characters on Dobie Gillis. Quite simply, as members of the Silent Generation, Dobie, Maynard, Zelda, and Thalia were all the same age as such people as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and so on. I don't think it would be unrealistic to believe that Maynard was probably active in the anti-war movement of the mid to late Sixties.

Dwayne Hickman and Yvonne Craig
Dobie Gillis was different from previous sitcoms beyond its portrayal of teenagers and their parents and the presence of a beatnik. While Dobie had a tendency to objectify women to a point that could be downright creepy (he tended to describe girls as "beautiful, gorgeous, soft, round, creamy..."), the show could be downright progressive compared to other shows on at the time when it came to its portrayal of women. Quite simply, with the exception of Mr. Pomfritt, the most intelligent people on the show were all women. There can be no doubt that of the various teenagers on the show, Zelda was the brightest. What is more, she definitely knew what she wanted (which just happened to be Dobie). And while Thalia was not the student that Zelda was, she was smarter than the boys who pursued her (particularly Dobie). Beyond the teenagers, Dr. Burkhart was a positively revolutionary character. She was an intelligent woman with a PhD who devoted her life to her career. What is more, she was not at all plain or lacking in charm. She could quite rightfully be described as glamorous. Before Mary Richards, Dr. Burkhart was a single career woman.

Beyond all of this, Dobie Gillis was revolutionary in one other way. Quite simply, Dobie Gillis was a forerunner of such sitcoms as Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, and The Monkees. Certainly Dobie Gillis became increasingly more surreal in its fourth season, with episodes in which Dobie is convinced Thalia is out to kill him and Dobie and Maynard become involved with spies. That having been said, Dobie Gillis was surreal from the very beginning. This was the case even with its presentation film, which in today's terms would be considered meta. Quite simply, Dobie is convinced that his life is being ruined by a writer named Max Shulman and decides to leave the show. The first episode of the series, "Caper at the Bijou," featured the first of many fantasy sequences, something that would remain a part of the show for the rest of its run. Although it debuted in the late Fifties and aired into the early Sixties, Dobie Gillis feels much more like a sitcom from the mid-Sixties. It has much more in common with The Addams Family, Bewitched, Green Acres, and The Monkees than it does The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver. Quite simply, being as surreal as it was, Dobie Gillis was ahead of its time.

Of course, beyond being a very revolutionary show in many ways, much of the success of Dobie Gillis was simply due to having a great cast. Dwayne Hickman already had considerable experience between his roles in movies and The Bob Cummings Show. Bob Denver was perfect in the role of Maynard. Tuesday Weld was on the cusp of superstardom. Even the show's supporting characters were played by some of the best in the business. Frank Faylen had a long filmography well before he played Herbert Gillis. Most people will probably remember him as taxi cab driver Ernie Bishop in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). An established character actor with a long career, he played Herbert wonderfully. William Schallert had not been in the business as long as Frank Faylen, but he already had a strong resume by the time he played Mr. Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis. Ultimately, Dobie Gillis had one of the best casts of any television show ever.

Dobie Gillis may not be as well known as I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, or The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it has never been entirely forgotten. It has recently been rerun on MeTV and is available on such streaming services as Amazon Prime, Shout! Factory, and Tubi. Shout! Factory released the entire series on DVD in 2013. Sixty years after its debut, Dobie Gillis is still popular. 

No comments: