The sad story of the fun Gilligan’s Island

News of Dawn Wells needing money to meet healthcare bills is the last of many sad stories about one of the the most popular TV comedies.

Gilligan's Island cast members

The Professor (Russel Johnson), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), Gilligan (Bob Denver), Ginger (Tina Louise), Mr. Howell (Jim Backus), Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer) and Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.)

Gilligan’s Island was an immensely popular TV show, which originally ran for three seasons in 1964-67. It was initially filmed in B/W and then switched to color. Except for the starting/ending theme footage, which were filmed in Honolulu, Hawaii, the show was filmed entirely on the sets in CBS studios in California. It also used stock footage of an island, which became famous as the Gilligan’s Island.

The show episodes are about the trials and tribulations of the crew and passengers of a storm-struck pleasure boat that got marooned on an uncharted island. As nobody knows that the island even exists, the island was ignored by all rescue attempts. The stranded people tried to get rescued several times but failed miserably each time. Meanwhile, the marooned somehow managed to bring a semblance of comfortable living with what little they brought with them or what the island could offer.

Semblance is quite a stretch. There comes the comedy part. When the show was being pitched, CBS executives did not think it could be sold to the public. However, the pilots were very successful and the series continued for several seasons. The plots of each episode stretched the limits of believability but the good-natured fun the show provided overcame all that skepticism.

The crew consisted of the captain known as the “Skipper” (Alan Hale Jr) and his mate Gilligan (Bob Denver). Gilligan was an innocent but bumbling fool and was the main reason for the failure of many rescue/escape attempts. Then, there was the Professor (Russel Johnson), an up-and-coming film actress Ginger played by the lanky and beautiful Tina Louise, and the pretty little village girl Mary Ann played by Dawn Wells. The Howells were an uber-rich couple who for unexplained reasons hired the boat to be side-by-side with common folk. They apparently brought with them a seemingly unlimited supply of cash, jewels, and clothing with them. The Skipper, Gilligan and the Professor wore the same clothes throughout. The girls seemed to have packed several dresses and abundant supplies of makeup for the trip.

During their stay, the island was visited by Russian spies, primitive head-hunting tribes, one Japanese soldier who believed the World War 2 was still going on, a South American dictator, an evil scientist, runaway gangsters, a human-hunting adventurer, Tarzan, a gorilla, a Beetles-like music group, Phil Slivers, Mae West and many others. Several unusual things washed up to the island’s lagoon including a navy mine, a secret service attache case, a magician’s box of wonders, a silent movie producing kit, a misguided space capsule and cans of ice-cream! There was a case of homing pigeons. The professor improvised a lot of devices out of salvaged parts, once even creating a transmitter. Mr Howell tried to use his immense money power on the visitors. However, none of these interventions resulted in a successful escape. There was always an ending surprise which ruined everything – the surprise usually being Gilligan.

After 98 episodes, the show was suddenly cancelled by a stupid CBS chief along with several other comedy shows. The producers had told the actors that show would be renewed for another season and had to tell them later that it was not. This apparently brought misery because some of them took on debt and bought properties in anticipation of the continuation of the show, which was doing well at that time.

The producers then sold out. The new owners made a killing as the show continued to be popular for decades in re-runs. Generations of American kids grew up watching Gilligan’s Island after school.

The actors meanwhile were not doing well. They became stereotyped and were strongly identified with the show. Film makers could not imagine them doing other characters. All of the actors, except maybe Bob Denver, had impressive acting credits before the show. They were suddenly left without acting offers.

Tina Louise was upset even when the show was being produced. She initially thought she was the main attraction of the show but became one of seven equally important cast members. After the show ended, she acted in a few films and TV shows but she was not as successful as she expected. Of the others, Jim Backus (the Hartley Benson of the Mel Blanc show) did better as Mr. Magoo and other roles.

After a long legal battle, the producer Sherwood Schwartz settled out-of-court with the owners of the rerun rights. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. The cast members still did not get anything from the settlement. [Interestingly, Sherwood Schwartz was one of the writers for I Married Joan. Joan Davis owned the rights of her show (unusual for  woman at that time) and died at the young age of 48. Jim Backus played Joan’s husband in the show.]

When a final TV movie for Gilligan’s Island was to be made featuring the rescue Tina Louise refused to act in it unless she was offered double the money. She knew Schwartz was a cunning fellow and treated him as such. She knew she would get no residuals from any Schwartz production. However, other cast members were anxious for the opportunity to entertain fans and agreed to act without Louise. The script for Ginger’s replacement in the TV movie included sneak attacks on Tina Louise who had to opt for less than stellar film roles. This was typical of Schwartz, who named the boat SS Minnow as a slight against FCC chairman Newton Minnow (who was very critical of TV programs). In the movie, the shipwrecked ride out of the island in a raft they built to avoid a storm. They get a grand reception at Honolulu from where the Minnow was originally operating.

One more reunion TV movie and some documentaries were made of the Island. Bob Denver and Russel Johnson died in obscurity. Alan Hale started a steak restaurant. Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) was already wealthy and did not suffer like some of the rest. Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only remaining cast members. I wish them health and happiness for all the fun they provided.

After Dawn Wells was hospitalized for several surgeries & suffered investment failures, she lost her home and incurred a lot of debt. A friend started an online crowdfunding effort, which quickly met its goal. Wells family was embarrassed by it. Wells finally moved into an assisted-living facility. This brings back a dialogue spoken by the Skipper from the Shakespearean play Hamlet.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Do not forget:
Stay out of debt.
Think twice and take this good advice from me:
Guard that old solvency!

I watched all episodes several times. My kid watches them every day and sometimes speaks like the Howell couple.

All 98 episodes and the TV movies are available on DailyMotion. It is one of those rare shows that never grow old.

One comment

  1. Pat

    A couple of corrections.
    Tina Louise was a highly successful actress prior to GI, She had several movie credits, including a “Best New Actress Award”. And had earned her stripes on Broadway, before going to Hollywood. She continued doing at least one, if not two films a year through 1989.

    Jim Backus was the voice of Magoo since it began in 1948?, up till he passed away, and he has numerous TV Credits as well.

    Bob Denver was well known. Gilligan’s Island was his second successful TV series. Following GI, he continued acting and in later years was an oldies radio show host with his wife.

    Alan Hale Jr began acting as a child actor in 1931. He had many credits in Film before GI. He was a part owner of “Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel” between 1970 and 1982 when he was phased out of the business. He then opened a travel agency. Regardless, he has film and TV credits through 1988.

    Russell Johnson is a similar story. He played “The Heavy” in 38 western movies prior to Gilligan’s Island. After GI, he continued
    acting and has credits up to 1988 as well.

    These five actors had rising careers in Movies prior to GI. After GI, they were so type cast, they couldn’t get the significant roles they used to have.


Make a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s