It’s hard to believe that a simple “three-hour tour” could turn into 98 half-hour prime time episodes, two animated spin-offs, a trio of made-for-TV reunion movies, and a permanent spot on the American pop culture psyche, but that’s just happened 50 years ago this month, when CBS aired the debut episode–but not the pilot (more on this to come)–of Gilligan’s Island, producer/creator Sherwood Schwartz’s sitcom spin on the “castaway” genre.
Best described as “Robinson Crusoe Meets Laurel and Hardy,” the broadly slapstick misadventures of first mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and wife Lovey (Natalie Schafer), movie star Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), and “the rest”–also known as bibliophile the Professor (Russell Johnson) and farm girl Mary Ann (Dawn Wells)–never garnered critical acclaim or any Emmy nominations, but it was in the Nielsen Top 20 for the first two years of its three-season network run. And, since going into syndication, the series seems to have been constantly airing somewhere around the world. To mark the golden anniversary of the show whose theme song no Baby Boomer will ever forget, no matter how hard they try, here are 10 bits of Gilligan’s Island trivia for you to sample (perhaps with a slice of coconut cream pie):
1. Was Gilligan the character’s first or last name? The answer depended upon who you talked to, show creator Sherwood Schwartz or Gilligan himself, Bob Denver. Schwartz always maintained that the accident-prone mariner’s full name was “Willy Gilligan,” while Denver thought that Gilligan was his first name. Oh, and as for the rest of the castaways: the Skipper’s actual name was the oh-so-suitable Jonas Grumby; the Professor was Roy Hinkley; Mrs. Howell’s full name was Eunice Lovelle (hence “Lovey”) Wentworth Howell; and Mary Ann’s surname was Summers.
2. He may have become permanently identified with the part, but Denver almost wasn’t picked to play Gilligan. The story goes that Jerry Van Dyke–who already had several successful guest shots on his big brother Dick’s eponymous show–was originally offered the role, but turned it down because he wanted to be the main star of his first series, not part of an ensemble cast. The opportunity Van Dyke held out for came along a year later, when he took the lead in the infamous one-season wonder My Mother the Car. Other notables who auditioned for the series included Carroll O’Connor (the Skipper), Dabney Coleman (the Professor) and Raquel Welch (Mary Ann), while Schwartz supposedly tried–and failed–to hire screen siren Jayne Mansfield for the part of Ginger.
3. Speaking of casting, the series’ original pilot had a very different look to it. The role of the Professor was played by John Gabriel, and in place of farm girl Mary Ann and actress Ginger there was a pair of vacationing secretaries, the flighty Bunny (Nancy McCarthy) and her level-headed friend, also named Ginger (Kit Smythe). This pilot failed to score with test audiences, so Schwartz came up with a revamped cast and added what he thought was a crucial missing element: a theme song to introduce the characters and the premise. The new test episode was a hit, and the unaired pilot (bits of which were used for the first-season Christmas episode) was unseen for decades (you can catch it–and the reggae-flavored original theme–on the first season DVD collection).
4. Filming for that pilot, by the way, wrapped up in Hawaii on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F.Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. If you take a close look at the opening credits as the good ship Minnow pulls out of harbor, an American flag can be seen flying at half-mast.
5. It may have been a tiny boat, but why was it called the S.S. Minnow? Years after the show went off the air, Schwartz admitted the name was his subtle way of tweaking then-FCC chairman Newton Minow, who a few years earlier famously referred to American network television as “a vast wasteland.”
6. Why did the first-season theme song refer to the Professor and Mary Ann simply as “the rest”? Well, Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells were among the last actors cast, and Sherwood Schwartz simply felt their roles were “secondary” characters. It was none other than Bob Denver who went to bat for the unsung duo, demanding that the producers add their names and faces to the show’s opening.
7. For being stuck on such a remote isle, the Minnow’s crew and passengers had quite a few visitors over the years, from various nearby natives to chart-topping British pop band The Moqsuitos (you remember: Bingo, Bango, Bongo and Irving) and Soviet cosmonauts to a feral jungle boy (Kurt Russell), socialite Erika Tiffany Smith (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and Hollywood producer Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers). Only two of their “guests,” however, came back for return visits: befuddled aviator Wrongway Feldman (Hans Conried) and mad scientist Boris Balinkoff (Vito Scotti). Balinkoff’s first appearance, incidentally, was the only episode in which the castaways actually got off the island…although it was just a quick visit to the not-so-good doctor’s own island retreat.
8. As mentioned earlier, Gilligan’s Island was a Nielsen hit in its first two seasons, finishing in 17th and 19th places, respectively. CBS, however, kept moving the series, from Saturday to Thursday to, for season three, Monday nights. At the end of its third year, it wound up out of the top 20, but producer Schwartz was assured that the show would be brought back for a fourth season. That is, until network head William Paley decided to reverse the planned cancellation of the long-running Gunsmoke–which was a hit with older audiences (yes, there was a time when the 18-34 demographic did not reign supreme)–and plunked the venerable frontier drama down on Monday night, leaving the castaways without a home and still stranded.
9. When the show proved to be a syndication success–particularly with kids–in the early ’70s, animation studio Filmation (the folks behind Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Star Trek: The Animated Series) decided to turn Gilligan and company into Saturday morning heroes. 1974-’75s The New Adventures of Gilligan featured the voices of Denver, Hale, Backus, Schafer and Johnson (cartoon actress Jane Webb did double duty as Ginger and Mary Ann) in an even sillier reprisal of the original sitcom. Eight years later, the gang’s attempt to leave the island via the Professor’s homemade rocket (Yes, we know: he could build a rocket, but he couldn’t patch the holes in the Minnow. Get over it!) send them into space and a crash landing on Gilligan’s Planet. This time, Dawn Wells returned to the fold to do Mary Ann’s voice as well as Ginger’s. Gilligan, meanwhile, was given the inevitable animal sidekick, a reptilian alien named Bumper (Apparently, Schwartz had considered giving Gilligan a baby dinosaur as a pet if the live-action series had made it to season four. He must have liked the concept, since he worked dinosaurs into his short-lived astronauts-meet-cavemen series It’s About Time).
10. In between their cartoon incarnations, the gang (still minus Tina Louise, who felt her three years on the island had stalled her screen career) was reunited in three made-for-TV movies. 1978’s Rescue from Gilligan’s Island–to the relief of millions of long-suffering fans–finally returned the castaways to Hawaii and civilization, only to mix in a plot with bumbling Soviet spies. Naturally, it ended with a reunion voyage on board the Skipper’s new Minnow II that leaves them stranded back on their former tropical home. Rescue, originally shown in two parts, did well enough in the ratings for a sequel, The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island, the following year. This time everyone was rescued for good, with the Howells turning the island into a luxury resort and keeping their friends on to help run the place (this was Sherwood Schwartz’s attempt to revive the franchise as a Love Boat/Fantasy Island mix, with Gilligan’s well-meaning blundering tossed in for good measure). And what can one possibly say about 1981’s The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, in which the legendary hoopsters’ plane crash lands on the resort and the Globetrotters must play a basketball game against a team of robots to keep an evil tycoon (Martin Landau) from gaining control of the island? Well, it was originally planned to star the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. And it introduced the Howells’ son, Thurston IV, despite the couple having been childless in the earlier series. And it was the final time Landau and then-wife Barbara Bain, who co-starred in Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999, would work together on the small screen. But mostly, it was the goofy final go-round for the Gilligan, the Skipper and company.
How does Gilligan’s Island stack up alongside The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and other TV shows celebrating their 50th anniversary? Vote in our MovieFanFare poll for your favorite 1964 series.