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The History of Gilligan's Island

Updated on July 5, 2015
John Lavernoich profile image

JOHN LAVERNOICH is the author of three books, as well as a significant number of published short stories and articles.

Bob Denver as Gilligan from the opening title of Gilligan's Island, when the series was broadcast in color at the start of its second season.
Bob Denver as Gilligan from the opening title of Gilligan's Island, when the series was broadcast in color at the start of its second season.

Though it only lasted three seasons, Gilligan’s Island remains one of the popular TV sitcoms of all time -- partly because it struck a chord with several generations of TV viewers who needed some escapism in order to relieve some of the pressure off the real world incidents that stared them in the face, and which continue to be very difficult (and in the mid-1960’s, when Gilligan’s Island debuted, the audience of that period had plenty to be concerned about).

By the early-1960’s, Sherwood Schwartz was already a radio and TV veteran, having written not only The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet radio series and the 1950’s TV series I Married Joan, but also material for Bob Hope and Alan Young’s radio shows, as well as Red Skelton’s TV show (with Schwartz winning an Emmy Award for his work on Skelton’s program in 1961). In 1963, while Schwartz was working as a script supervisor for the TV sci-fi sitcom My Favorite Martian, he came up with the concept for what would become Gilligan’s Island -- in which seven people from various walks of life were stranded together on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean. With the financial backing of not only CBS and United Artists, but also TV star Phil Silvers (which explains why Silvers’ daughters -- including actress Cathy -- currently co-owns the rights to Gilligan’s Island with Turner Entertainment [now a Time Warner company]), Schwartz produced first a TV pilot to generate network interest in the series, with some of the actors who’d go on to appear in the actual TV series -- including Bob Denver as Gilligan (who got the role after Jerry Van Dyke turned it down), Alan Hale, Jr. as Jonas Grumby (aka the Skipper), Jim Backus (who worked with Schwartz on I Married Joan) as multi-millionaire businessman Thurston Howell III (with Backus’ other famous acting role of animated cartoon character Mr. Magoo inspiring, to a certain degree, Mr. Howell’s voice and mannerisms), and Natalie Schafer as Mr. Howell’s wife Eunice (better known by her nickname “Lovey”).

To further insure that Gilligan’s Island would get on the air, Schwartz needed a theme song that would prove to be as iconic as the TV show itself. For the TV pilot, a Calypso-type theme song was written by Schwartz and composer (and future Academy Award winner) John Williams, with Schwartz himself providing the singing. When Gilligan’s Island did get the green light as a TV series, Schwartz decided to co-write yet another theme song for the series -- the end result was one of the most famous in both TV and pop culture history, “The Ballad Of Gilligan’s Island,” with music by George Wyle (best remembered for co-writing the popular Christmas song “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”); both songs detailed how Gilligan and the other castaways ended up on the desert island (thanks in part to Gilligan and the Skipper’s bungling).

When Gilligan’s Island debuted on CBS in the fall of 1964, Denver, Hale, Backus, and Schafer were joined by Tina Louise (as film actress Ginger Grant), Russell Johnson (as Roy Hinkley, aka the Professor), and Dawn Wells (as mid-westerner Mary Ann Summers). Many of the episodes focused on the castaways adjusting to life on the desert island -- or, more often than not, trying to get off the island without any success, with Gilligan getting most of the blame. The first season episodes in 1964-65 were aired in black-and-white -- starting in the fall of 1965, the rest of the series was broadcast in color, as the era of black-and-white TV programs were coming to an end.

TV critics panned Gilligan’s Island when it debuted in 1964, saying that it was an insult to both the industry and the intelligence of TV viewers; ironically enough, it was the TV viewers of that time who helped make Gilligan’s Island a ratings success for CBS. It was also a tonic of sorts for the same TV viewers still recovering from the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy almost a year ago -- and who were also facing the other unavoidable realities of the 1960’s, including the racism and violence that brought about the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the controversial Vietnam War that would end up dividing the country, and the growing youth and hippie movement which would linger on into the early-1970’s. For a troubled decade, TV shows like Gilligan’s Island offered a brief respite from the still-growing problems of the real world -- as many were already starting to learn that the hard facts about said problems were totally impossible to sugarcoat.

The guest stars who appeared on Gilligan’s Island during its three-year run ranged from newcomers like Kurt Russell -- to established actors like Don Rickles, Larry Storch, Hans Conreid, and Strother Martin. Even Phil Silvers, a key player in the TV series’ success, guest-starred in the 1966 episode “The Producer,” playing a film producer who stages a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starring the castaways; that episode was co-directed by legendary film and TV actress Ida Lupino.

Though Gilligan’s Island was a ratings success, it left some nagging questions that weren’t answered (at least, by Schwartz and the show’s writers -- a typical example of the many inconsistencies that were associated with the TV shows of that period): If Gilligan and the other castaways were aboard the Skipper’s ship the SS Minnow for a three-hour tour of the Hawaiian islands, how did most of the Howells’ fortune end up on the desert island? If Gilligan, the Skipper, and the Professor’s clothing remained the same during the show’s run, why didn’t the Howells, Ginger, and Mary Ann’s remain that way? And if the castaways managed to adapt to life on the desert island, why couldn’t they figure out a way to get off it? (As for whether Schwartz had planned to have the castaways actually rescued when the series did come to an end -- nobody can truly answer that question. But then, it’s highly unlikely that Schwartz even gave serious thought to that idea during the show’s run.)

In 1967, CBS cancelled Gilligan’s Island -- partly to boost the ratings of Gunsmoke, one of the network’s long-running TV series, by moving it to Monday night (where Gilligan’s Island had done well in the Nielsen ratings during most of its network TV run). The network’s gambit worked, thus insuring Gunsmoke’s ratings success for the rest of its twenty-year network TV run -- however, as a result of CBS cancelling Gilligan’s Island, the network had denied a sense of closure for not only the show’s cast and creative staff, but also its fans; it was the series’ long-time fans who remained loyal when reruns of the series were broadcast in syndication starting in the late-1960’s (and later, on cable TV); it would also led to several brief revivals of Gilligan’s Island during the 1970’s and early-1980’s.

In the fall of 1974, Filmation co-produced The New Adventures of Gilligan, an animated spin-off series which aired on ABC, and which featured the voices of most of the original series’ cast. (Filmation also produced The Brady Kids -- an animated TV spin-off of The Brady Bunch, the 1969-74 ABC sitcom also created and produced by Sherwood Schwartz.) In 1978, NBC broadcast Rescue from Gilligan’s Island -- the first of three TV-movies that the network would air over the next four years which starred the majority of the show’s cast. In 1982, CBS broadcast Gilligan’s Planet, another animated TV spin-off co-produced by Filmation, in which the castaways ended up in outer space. Those revivals, plus guest appearances on Alf and Roseanne -- not to mention a number of TV commercials that have aired in the past few decades -- would be among the last times that Bob Denver, Alan Hale, Jr., and co. would play their iconic TV roles, both in live-action and animated formats.

And Gilligan’s Island would also inspire not only a stage musical written by Sherwood Schwartz’s son Lloyd which was first performed in the early-1990’s, and the 2001 TV-movie docudrama Surviving Gilligan’s Island, which gave TV viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the TV series (though not so convincingly) -- but also a short-lived reality TV show, The Real Gilligan’s Island, which aired on cable’s TBS in 2004, inspired in part by the Reality TV series Survivor -- and which proved to be less entertaining than the original TV sitcom that it inspired. (But then, Survivor isn’t a great TV show, either -- reminding us how the industry itself has changed, in some ways, for the worst.) There are also plans for a possible feature film version of Gilligan’s Island, with Josh Gad not only set to play Gilligan, but also co-writing the film’s screenplay.

Gilligan’s Island -- a product of the 1960’s, the decade that forever changed a generation -- remains not only an all-time TV classic, but also a pop culture phenomenon, with its popularity showing no signs of slowing down. But Gilligan’s Island also remains, to generations of viewers, an escape of sorts from the pressures of the real world -- and in the process, has helped make it a bit easier for all of us to face the real-life uncertainties of both the present and the future.

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      Jo 14 months ago

      All time favorite Gilligan’s Island!

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