Sit Right Back: Tales of Gilligan's Island
Just sit right back and you'll read the tale, the tale of a TV series (and some of its cast members) whose creator was greeted with "Who the (expletive) is going to tune in week after week to see those same (expletive) people on that same (expletive) island?" from network executives during his first pitch meeting. The series that, since its debut in 1964, has been broadcast more times than any other television show in history (and that includes I Love Lucy).
It's a Social Microcosm!
One day in a public speaking class at New York University, the professor had students compose an impromptu one-minute speech on this topic: If you were stranded on a desert island, what one item would you like to have? Sherwood Schwartz was a student in that class, and the question so intrigued him that it remained lodged in the back of his mind for many years. After working for many years as a comedy writer for other shows, he decided to pitch his own idea for a sitcom. Thinking back to that desert island question, he thought it would make for an interesting dynamic to have a group of very dissimilar individuals stranded together and have to learn to live and work together. After all, in the real world a movie star would never sit down and eat dinner with a professor, nor would multi-millionaires hobnob with a corn-fed Kansas girl. The island would be a social microcosm and a metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.
Schwartz quickly discovered after his first few pitch meetings that words like "microcosm" and "metaphor" were not very helpful when trying to sell a comedy.
Eventually he was given a reluctant green light to film a pilot, and the pilot is what ultimately sold the series. Even though the network suits still couldn't fathom the appeal of the premise, three different test audiences loved it. Gilligan's Island was a "go."
Finding the Right Name and the Right Actor
Schwartz knew from the beginning that he wanted to name the show after the bumbling first mate. But first he had to find the right name for that hapless character. He spent three weeks poring over various Los Angeles area telephone books "¦. "Nelson's Island" sounded too documentary-ish, while "Finklestein's Island" was too vaudevillian. He finally settled on "Gilligan." (By the way, Gilligan was the character's last name, even though all the castaways bandied it about as if it was his first name. Had a plot ever called for a first name for the character, in Schwartz's mind it would have been "Willy.")
Finding an actor to personify the gangly Gilligan—Schwartz had also decided that he wanted a Laurel and Hardy-type combo in casting the Skipper and his first mate—provided the next stumbling block. Schwartz's first choice was slapstick comedian Jerry Van Dyke. But as luck would have it, Van Dyke had been simultaneously offered the lead role in another proposed sitcom, My Mother the Car. After careful consideration, Van Dyke decided that the talking car show was less ridiculous than the desert island one and had a better chance at being picked up for a second season. Schwartz was reluctant to cast Bob Denver, who was just coming off a successful run on Dobie Gillis. He feared that viewers would look at Denver and see only beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. (Of course, years later casting directors looked at Bob Denver and immediately thought "Gilligan.")
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Natalie Schafer made occasional appearances on TV and in films during her career, but her true love was the theater, and when she agreed to film the pilot of Gilligan's Island she was living in New York and working on Broadway. She only accepted the invitation to play Mrs. (Eunice) Lovey Howell because it meant a free trip to Hawaii (where the pilot was shot). She never dreamed the show would get picked up. Schafer was a real-life millionaire; during her marriage to actor Louis Calhern (1934-1942), the couple had invested heavily in Beverly Hills real estate at a time when a house on Rodeo Drive could be purchased for $50,000. When she died in 1991, her will bequeathed a large chunk of her fortune to her favorite teacup poodle (she had no children), with instructions for that money to be donated to Motion Picture and Television Hospital after the pooch's passing. (Said hospital now has a "Natalie Schafer Wing," so the poodle must have left a hefty legacy.) Rumor has it that Schafer also left a tidy sum to co-star Dawn Wells, who helped care for Natalie during her bout with breast cancer.
Schafer also had a big secret that she took with her to her grave—her real age. No one, not even her closest friends, knew how old she was, and she'd had it stipulated in advance that her obituary should give her age as 90. It was written in her Gilligan's Island contract that she should not have any extreme close-ups, lest her face reveal a few too many lines. But take a look at this clip—she was pretty groovy for a lady pushing 70 at the time, no?
Alan Hale Jr. was just an infant when he first appeared on the big screen. His father had been a successful actor, appearing in nearly 300 films, and since Junior was often on the set with his mother (actress Gretchen Hartman), he was sometimes used in scenes that required a baby. Because of his long years in the business, he was the very definition of a trouper; at the wrap party after season two, Hale casually commented to Sherwood Schwartz "Now I can take care of my arm." When pressed for details, he revealed that he'd broken a bone in his arm while performing a stunt a week previous. Schwartz was aghast, saying "We've got insurance! Why didn't you tell me, why didn't you see a doctor?!" Alan replied "Why go through all that trouble?" He explained that there were only a few days of filming left, and he knew that most of the crew already had vacation plans, so he didn't want to be responsible for holding up production.
Unlike some of his fellow cast members, Hale embraced his role as the Skipper and didn't mind being typecast. For years after the series ended, he visited children's hospitals in costume, signing autographs and cheering up youngsters. Sherwood Schwartz was present during one of those visits—an 11-year-old Gilligan's Island fan was just stirring after having a kidney removed and he saw Alan Hale at his bedside. "Skipper?" he whispered groggily. "That's right, little buddy," Hale replied, "Skipper's here with you and everything's going to be all right." The child's surgeon beckoned Hale and Schwartz into the corridor. "We have no medicine that's anywhere near as good as that," he said.
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So little space, so much more to tell! If you enjoyed this installment, please tune in next week to find out how the S.S. Minnow got its name, which savvy castaway collected the most residuals, and many other tasty behind-the-scenes tidbits here on Gilligan's Island! (But that doesn't mean you have to hold your comments until then "“ feel free to share your Gilligan memories here and now!)
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