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Sit Right Back: Tales of Gilligan's Island

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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?

Gentle Giant

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!)

Previous Installments of TV-Holic...

11 Famous Actors and the Big TV Roles They Turned Down
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6 Secrets From the Brady Vault
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6 Unusual TV Deaths
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Happy 50th Anniversary, Twilight Zone!
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6 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets From Cheers

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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