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TV-Holic: Still on Gilligan’s Island

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Last month we took you on a three-hour tour (give or take) of Gilligan's Island. But there's so much more to tell! Just sit right back and you'll find out where the S.S. Minnow got its name, which shrewd cast member is still collecting royalties, and why the Professor and Mary Ann were originally left out of the opening credits.

The S.S. Minnow

When the sets were being assembled for the pilot episode of Gilligan’s Island, the folks in the prop department were given a list of necessary set dressings that included “one small boat with holes in its hull.” Three business-suited studio employees were dispatched to a boatyard in Honolulu, where their somewhat formal attire caught the attention of the resident commercial fishermen. The curiosity of the locals quickly turned into outright incredulity as they watched the men purchase a cabin cruiser without so much as setting foot onboard, and then proceed to smash the hull with a sledgehammer. The damaged craft was loaded onto a barge and tugged back to the filming location, where it was christened the S.S. Minnow. Sherwood Schwartz named the boat after FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who’d recently decried television as a “vast wasteland.”

Bob Denver later asked a prop master why they’d perforated the Minnow prior to delivery (rather than just damaging it once it was on the set), the man shrugged and replied “I got a memo that said ‘boat with holes.’”

Credit Where It’s Due

The first season opening credits ended with a picture of “Ginger” as the singers crooned “the moo-vie stahr” followed by a hastily added “and the rest.” The text accompanying the photo proclaimed: “and also starring Tina Louise as ‘Ginger.’” (The only other cast member whose character name was listed in the credits was Jim Backus, a show business veteran and very recognizable character actor whose resume was longer than Ginger’s evening gown.) Louise had had it written into her contract that, along with the “also starring” billing, no one would follow her name in the credits.

Once the show was renewed for a second season, champion-for-the-underdog Bob Denver approached the producers and asked that Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells be added to the opening credits, stating that their characters were just as vital to the dynamic as any of the others. When the producers started pointing to the clause in Tina Louise’s contract, Denver countered by referring to a clause in his own contract which stated he could have his name placed anywhere in the credits he liked. He threatened to have his name moved to last place, so an agreement was hammered out with Louise, a revised theme song was recorded, and Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells took their rightful place in the opening montage.

Sweet and Innocent (and Savvy)

Dawn Wells grew up in Nevada, not Kansas, but her life was no less idyllic than that of Mary Ann Summers. She helped her mother grow fresh vegetables in the family’s backyard garden, and she did very well in school. When she first enrolled at Missouri’s Stephens College it was with an eye toward getting a medical degree. But then she caught the acting bug and switched her major to drama. She entered the Miss Nevada Pageant in 1959 simply for the experience of being on stage in front of a large audience, and ended up winning and representing her state in the 1960 Miss America contest.


Wells was married to talent agent Larry Rosen when she was hired for the Gilligan cast, and it was Rosen who noted the clause in her contract (which was standard at the time) that limited her to collecting residuals only the first five times any episode re-ran after its original airing. Rosen told Wells that if the series was a success, this clause could cost her a lot of money. Wells was the only castaway who asked for an amendment to that residual clause in her contract, and the producers granted it, never thinking the series would be on the air 40 years later. As a result, Sherwood Schwartz and Dawn Wells are the only two folks connected with the show who still receive money from it.

Hard Knock Life

When Russell Johnson was eight years old in 1932, his father passed away. His mother was unable to support her seven children, so Russell and his brothers were sent to Philadelphia’s Girard College, which served as a boarding school for orphaned boys at the time. After he graduated he joined the Army Air Corps, where he served as a gunner on bombers during World War II. In 1945 his B-24 Liberator was shot down in the Philippines and he had to crash-land on the island of Mindanao. He broke both his ankles and received a Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf cluster, the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War ribbon with four battle stars, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. He used his G.I. Bill to attend the Actor’s Lab in Hollywood.

It’s hard to picture the always-benevolent Professor as a bad guy, but in the years prior to Gilligan’s Island , Johnson made dozens of appearances in TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, Superman and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he was almost always cast as a “heavy” – a thug, a criminal, n’er do well. Once he landed the role of the Professor, he installed a set of reference books in his dressing room so that he could look up any scientific terms that were included in his dialog. He thought it would make his character more believable if he spoke the very technical phrases with some knowledge of their meaning.

The Bitter Millionaire

Jim Backus’ career dated back to Vaudeville and radio. He even had some impressive big-screen credits, such as James Dean’s father in Rebel without a Cause. He easily made the transition into television, nabbing a starring role on I Married Joan as well as his own short-lived sitcom. He’d also been providing the voice of the lovable near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo since 1949.


Despite his extensive resume before and after Gilligan’s Island, he was always immediately associated with Thurston Howell III. Unlike castmate Tina Louise, Backus didn’t mind being typecast; what he did mind was that once the series proved to have serious staying power via syndication, which made certain executives very rich, said executives (a veiled reference to Sherwood Schwartz) never approached the stars to re-negotiate their contracts and retroactively share the wealth. To his credit, by the time the ill-conceived Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island was filmed, Schwartz realized that he couldn’t substitute another actor as Mr. Howell as he’d done with Ginger. Instead, a grown Howell son was written into the story instead, but Jim Backus (who was very ill with Parkinson’s disease at the time) was still listed in the opening credits alongside the other stars, despite the fact that his participation in the movie was basically a “cameo” appearance.

Previous Installments of TV-Holic...

The Early TV Appearances of 7 Big Stars
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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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5 Minor TV Characters Who Hijacked the Show

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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