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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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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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