The final episode of Gilligan’s Island was broadcast on April 17, 1967. Though never a critical favorite, the show was still a solid ratings hit and the cast and crew had every expectation of returning in the fall for a fourth season. But at the last minute CBS needed to find some room on the schedule for Gunsmoke, the favorite show of Babe Paley, wife of network president William Paley. So Gilligan got the axe and, at least as far as viewers know, the cast is still stranded somewhere in the Pacific.
Forty-eight years after that final wrap party, however, Gilligan’s Island is still on the air. It was sold into syndication and has been broadcasting reruns continuously in 30 different languages around the world. Just sit right back and you’ll hear some tales of everyone’s favorite castaways.
1. IT WAS INTENDED TO BE A “METAPHORICAL SHAMING OF WORLD POLITICS.”
One day in a public speaking class at New York University, the professor had students compose an impromptu one-minute speech on this topic: If you were stranded on a desert island, what one item would you like to have? Sherwood Schwartz was a student in that class, and the question so intrigued him that it remained lodged in the back of his mind for many years.
After working for some time as a comedy writer for other shows, Schwartz decided to pitch his own idea for a sitcom. Thinking back to that desert island question, he thought it would make for an interesting dynamic to have a group of very dissimilar individuals stranded together and have to learn to live and work together. The island would be “a social microcosm and a metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along,” Schwartz explained in Inside Gilligan's Island: From Creation to Syndication. 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.
2. GILLIGAN’S FIRST NAME IS WILLY.
After getting a green light from CBS for the pilot, Schwartz went about assembling his cast. He chose the name of the bumbling first mate—Gilligan—from the Los Angeles telephone directory. Gilligan’s first name was never mentioned during the series, but according to Schwartz’s original notes, it was intended to be “Willy.” Yet Bob Denver always insisted that “Gilligan” was the character’s first name. “Almost every time I see Bob Denver we still argue,” Schwartz once admitted. “He thinks Gilligan is his first name, and I think it's his last name. Because in the original presentation, it's Willy Gilligan. But he doesn't believe it, and he doesn't want to discuss it. He insists the name is Gilligan.”
3. SCHWARTZ WANTED JERRY VAN DYKE TO PLAY GILLIGAN.
Jerry Van Dyke was Schwartz’s first choice to play the lead, but Van Dyke said that the pilot script was “the worst thing I’d ever read.” On the advice of his agent, Van Dyke accepted the lead in the short-lived (and critically panned) My Mother The Car instead. “I had a lot of problems with the agency, because they were trying to push me into taking [Gilligan’s Island],” Van Dyke recalled in an interview. “But that’s the joke: I turned it down and took My Mother the Car. But, again, it was really good, because I’d [have] been forever known as Gilligan. So that worked out, too!”
4. ALAN HALE GOT TO HIS AUDITION VIA HORSEBACK.
The Skipper was the toughest, and last, character to be cast. Schwartz auditioned dozens of actors (including Carroll O’Connor), but no one was quite right; he wanted someone strong and commanding, sometimes blustery and short-tempered, but able to show a genuine affection for Gilligan even when smacking him over the head with his hat. Alan Hale was filming Bullet for a Bad Man in St. George, Utah when he got the casting call for Gilligan and was unable to get time off for a screen test. So he had to sneak off set after a day of filming, which was no easy task. In Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three-Hour Tour in History, it was revealed that Hale made his way to Los Angeles to read a scene with Bob Denver via horseback, hitchhiking, airplane, and taxi cab. He reversed the process after the audition and made it back to Utah just in time to resume filming his western the next day.
5. THE ASSASSINATION OF JFK DELAYED PRODUCTION ON THE SERIES.
The pilot for the series was filmed over several days in November of 1963 on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. The last day of shooting was scheduled for November 23, 1963 in Honolulu Harbor for the scenes showing the S.S. Minnow embarking on its fateful three-hour tour. Late in the morning on November 22, a crew member ran to the set and announced that he’d just heard on the radio that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. As Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President, it was announced that all military installations (including Honolulu Harbor) would be closed for the next two days as a period of mourning. Filming was delayed by several days as a result, and in the opening credits—as the Minnow cruises the harbor—the American flag can be seen flying at half-mast in the background.
6. THE MILLIONAIRE’S WIFE REALLY WAS A MILLIONAIRE.
Natalie Schafer, who played Mrs. Lovey Howell—and allegedly only accepted the invitation to play Mrs. Howell because it meant a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot—was a real-life millionaire. During her marriage to actor Louis Calhern, 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, Schafer 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 the Motion Picture and Television Hospital after the pooch’s passing. Said hospital now has a "Natalie Schafer Wing." Rumor has it that Schafer also left a tidy sum to Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells (Mary Ann), who lived with and helped care for Natalie as she battled breast cancer.
7. DAWN WELLS STILL GETS PAID FOR GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.
All of the actors signed contracts that guaranteed them a certain amount of money per original episode plus a residual payment for the first five repeats of each episode. This was a pretty standard contract in 1965, when as a rule most TV shows were only rerun during the summer months as a placeholder between seasons.
Even though the word “syndication” wasn’t yet a standard term in the TV production glossary, Dawn Wells’ then-husband, talent agent Larry Rosen, advised her to ask for an amendment to that residual clause in her contract, and the producers granted it, never thinking the series would be on the air nearly 50 years later. As a result, the estate of the late Sherwood Schwartz (who reportedly pocketed around $90 million during his lifetime from his little microcosm-on-an-island show) and Dawn Wells are the only two folks connected to the show who still receive money from it.
8. RAQUEL WELCH AUDITIONED FOR MARY ANN.
The programming executives at CBS were underwhelmed by the pilot, but it managed to impress three different test audiences enough that they put the series on the fall schedule. But before filming for the first episode began, they had a few caveats—the first of which was replacing three cast members who had tested the “lowest” with audiences: John Gabriel, who played The Professor, a high school science teacher; Kit Smythe, who played Ginger as a secretary, not a movie star; and Nancy McCarthy, who played Bunny, yet another secretary. It was decided to make Ginger an actress, and Bunny was replaced by wholesome farm girl Mary Ann. One actress who auditioned for Mary Ann’s part was a young Raquel Welch, though something about her just didn’t scream “girl next door.”
9. THE SHOW’S STARS FOUND FANS IN THE STRANGEST PLACES.
Years after the show stopped filming (it’s never really been “off the air”), the cast members found fans in the most unusual places. For example, in 2001 Russell Johnson was asked to speak at a biochemical conference in San Francisco. “There were four or five hundred PhDs there, and every one of them was a Gilligan’s Island fan,” he recalled. Bob Denver took his wife to dinner at Chicago’s elegant Pump Room once and the trio of musicians immediately switched from playing their semi-classical chamber music to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island.” Dawn Wells was vacationing in the Solomon Islands in 1990 when she and some friends canoed to a remote island in the area that had no running water or electricity. The visitors were ushered to a hut to meet the village chief, and Wells was stunned when “The chief's wife said, ‘I know you. In 1979, I was going to nursing school in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, and I used to come home and watch you in black-and-white!’”
10. THE SKIPPER BROKE HIS ARM FALLING OUT OF A COCONUT TREE.
Alan Hale was an old-school “the show must go on” kind of actor. In Inside Gilligan’s Island, Schwartz recalled chatting with Hale at the season one wrap party when the actor, as jolly and convivial as always, happened to comment that now that shooting was completed, he could take care of his arm. When Schwartz asked what was wrong with his arm, Hale nonchalantly replied: “Oh, I broke it a few weeks ago.” He went on to explain that three weeks prior he had missed the crash pads slightly when he fell out of a coconut tree for a scene and had smashed his right arm on the stage. He hadn’t sought medical treatment because he didn’t want to disrupt the filming schedule. Schwartz was dumbfounded; “How did you manage to haul coconuts and lift Bob Denver with a broken arm?” “It wasn’t easy,” Hale admitted.
11. NATALIE SCHAFER DID HER OWN STUNTS.
Even though Natalie Schafer was in her mid-60s when Gilligan’s Island was filmed, she insisted on doing the majority of her own stunts—and never complained about jumping into the lagoon or sinking in fake quicksand. In 1965, she told “Let’s Be Beautiful” columnist Arlene Dahl that she kept in shape by swimming in her backyard pool—in the nude—and by periodically following her special “ice cream diet,” which consisted of eating nothing but one quart of ice cream (spread out over three meals) daily. She would lose three pounds in five days following that regime.
12. THE MILLIONAIRE WAS A CHEAPSKATE.
Jim Backus, who played Mr. Howell, was beloved by his castmates. In addition to being the source of endless ribald jokes and a willing coach to the less experienced actors on how to ad-lib or deliver a punch line, he was also notoriously cheap. In What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life, Dawn Wells recalled how during the show’s first season he would often invite her and Natalie Schafer out to lunch … only to realize that he had left his wallet back at the studio when the check came. Before the cast departed for summer hiatus after the wrap party, Schafer presented Backus with a bill for a little over $300—the total he owed for all those meals.
13. THE PROFESSOR AND MARY ANN WEREN’T IN THE ORIGINAL OPENING CREDITS.
In the first season of Gilligan’s Island, the opening credits ended with a picture of Ginger as the singers crooned “the moo-vie star” 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 mentioned the clause in Louise’s contract, Denver countered by referring to a clause in his own contract which stated that 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 Johnson and Wells took their rightful place in the opening montage.
14. THE LAGOON WAS LOCATED IN STUDIO CITY, CALIFORNIA.
The lagoon set was specially built for the show by CBS on their Studio City lot in 1964. They’d originally tried filming two episodes in Malibu, but they had a lot of downtime due to fog. Of course, filming at the studio had its own set of problems; sometimes filming had to be halted when traffic noise could be heard from the nearby Ventura Freeway. And the water temperature would hover around 40 degrees during the winter months, forcing Bob Denver to wear a wetsuit under his Gilligan costume. In 1995, the lagoon was turned into an employee parking lot.
15. THE MOVIE STAR WANTED TO BE THE TELEVISION STAR.
In the January 23, 1965 edition of TV Guide, an article about Bob Denver mentioned the on-set tension between Tina Louise and the rest of the castaways: “Denver will not say why he and the glamorous Tina [Louise] do not get along, nor will any of the castaways–they just ignore her, and she ignores them. Between scenes, while the other six principals chat and tell jokes together, she sits off by herself. And recently when Denver was asked to pose for pictures with her, he adamantly refused. Part of Louise’s dissatisfaction with the series was that she had expected to be the star of the show. (Her agent had allegedly pitched it to her as the story of an actress stranded on an island with six other people.)
Bob Denver eventually capitulated to network pressure and agreed to do a photo shoot with Louise for a TV Guide cover in May of 1965—but only if Dawn Wells was included. To his chagrin, Wells was cropped out of the final image.