Today we begin a month-long look at Gilligan’s Island. I admit I was never a big Gilligan fan, but there are so many dedicated viewers that I decided it was time to take a closer look. Today we look at the series, and in the following weeks, we’ll look at the actors who appeared in the cast.
Gilligan’s Island was created by one of my favorite producers, Sherwood Schwartz. It aired from September 1964 till April of 1967, producing 98 episodes and a ton of other versions of the show which aired as new series or television movies, including the hard-to-believe Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.
The premise of the show was that on a three-hour tour, the SS Minnow became shipwrecked on a deserted island after a typhoon. Seven castaways now must make the island their home as they wait to be rescued. We have the captain of the ship, the Skipper (Alan Hale), his first-mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife Lovie (Natalie Schafer), movie star Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), the girl next door Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), and the Professor (Russell Johnson). All they have is a transistor radio and whatever they had on the ship.
CBS gave the okay for Schwarz to film the pilot. Schwartz wanted Jerry Van Dyke for Gilligan, but Van Dyke said it was “the worst thing” he ever read. He turned down the script and accepted the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car.
The pilot was titled “Marooned.” Seven characters were in the pilot, but only the Skipper, Gilligan and the Howells were going to be in the ongoing series. These were the only castaways mentioned in the pilot theme song. The final day of filming for the pilot was November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The staff was crowded around a radio between scenes trying to get the updated news. In the opening of the episodes in the first season, as the Minnow leaves the harbor, you can see an American flag flying at half staff as a tribute to Kennedy.
After seeing the pilot, several changes were requested. The first change was to the theme song. Originally it was written by the talented John Williams and sung by Schwartz and was a Calypso-sounding song. The lyrics were quite different from the song we recognize today. The background music and laugh track were the same for both the pilot and the ensuing shows. The three characters who were not part of the series at first were the same characters that later appeared . . . sort of. The Professor was a high school teacher played by John Gabriel, Ginger was an actress but also a secretary played by Kit Smythe, and Mary Ann was Bunny, a dumb blonde stereotype played by Nancy McCarthy.
Because so many changes happened between the pilot and the first episode, the pilot was not aired until 1992 when it was broadcast on TBS.
The first season was filmed in black and white but later colorized for syndication The second and third seasons were filmed in color.
While the pilot had been filmed in Hawaii, the show was taped at a lagoon built at the CBS Radford Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles. The film was supposed to be shot in Malibu, but it was too foggy. The Ventura Freeway was nearby and when traffic was too loud, production had to halt. The lagoon would become a parking lot in 1995.
There were four boats that “played” the part of the SS Minnow. One was used in the opening credits which had been rented in Honolulu for the filming of the pilot. One was used in the opening credits for the final two years. One was shown in beach scenes and the fourth was built at the studio.
The eventual theme song was called “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” and was written by Schwartz and George Wyle. There were two versions, one for the first season which referred to Mary Ann and the Professor as “the rest,” and another version for the last two seasons which specified “The Professor and Mary Ann.” Dawn Wells credits Bob Denver for going to bat for her and Johnson threatening to take his name out of the song if they were not added.
For the opening credits, the song was:
Just sit right back
And you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship
The mate was a mighty sailing man
The skipper brave and sure
Five passengers set sail that day
For a 3-hour tour, a 3-hour tour
The weather started getting rough
The tiny ship was tossed
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost
The ship set ground on the shore of this
Uncharted desert isle
The Skipper too
A millionaire, and his wife
A movie star
The Proffessor and Mary Ann
Here on Gilligan’s Isle
For closing credits, the lyrics were:
So, this is the tale of our castaways
They’re here for a long long time
They’ll have to make the best of things
It’s an uphill climb
The first mate and his skipper too
Will do their very best
To make the others comfortable
In the tropic island nest
No phone, no lights, no motor cars
Not a single luxury
Like Robinson Crusoe
It’s primitive as can be
So, join us here each week my friends
You’ll sure to get a smile
From 7 stranded castaways
Here on Gilligan’s Isle!
Most of the episodes can be categorized into five themes. (1) One of the castaways make some useful object from local material. These could be anything from their bamboo huts to hot water pipes to a stethoscope to a pedal-powered car. They just could not produce anything that could get them off the island! (2) Visitors would often appear on the island. We’ll learn about some of the guest stars on the show in our last monthly blog. None of these visitors ever help the characters get rescued. Unbelievably, Ginger, Gilligan, and Mr. Howell all had look-alikes end up on the island, causing trouble for them. (3) Dreams occur a lot. When we see them, all the characters are part of the dream. Apparently, the hot weather made them sleepy. (4) News from the outside world, usually heard on the radio, caused trouble on the island. (5) Strange objects showed up on the island from time to time like a WWII mine or radioactive vegetable seeds.
Despite many corny scripts and imagination-stretching storylines, the show received solid ratings all three years. When it went into syndication, it grew in popularity. Many of the stars from Gilligan play their characters from the show in other series’ television episodes in the 1970s and 1980s.
The last episode was called “Gilligan the Goddess.” Unfortunately, the castaways were not rescued. A fourth season was expected or perhaps Schwartz would have saved them. In season three, the show was on Monday nights competing with The Monkees. Schwartz was assured it would be back because it had higher ratings than The Monkees. Gunsmoke, which aired Saturday nights, was given the potential ax. However, CBS president William Paley pressured the executives who then moved Gunsmoke to Monday night and cancelled Gilligan’s Island.
One funny fact I read about was how often the US Coast Guard received telegrams from citizens who were pleading for them to make an effort to rescue the cast from Gilligan’s Island. The Coast Guard sent these telegrams to Schwartz.
I can’t say that after learning more about the show, it made my favorites list, but there are definitely worse shows on television than Gilligan’s Island. If it was one of your favorites, you’ll enjoy hearing about the stars who played the castaways. I certainly learned they were just as interesting a group of people in real life as they were on the isle they called home for three years.