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!
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
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?
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 * 6 Secrets From the Brady Vault * 6 Unusual TV Deaths * Happy 50th Anniversary, Twilight Zone! * 6 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets From Cheers