Columbo: The Disheveled Detective

We are winding up the blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” and I think we saved the most interesting private eye for today: Columbo.

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Columbo was on the air from 1971-2003, the longest of the five detectives we looked at in this series (Cannon, Kojak, Mannix, Matlock, and Columbo), but oddly had the fewest episodes with 68 (Cannon had 120, Kojak had 117, Matlock with 181, and Mannix had the most with 194).

Richard Levinson and William Link created Columbo (they also were the force behind Mannix). Levinson and Link met in junior high and they were a writing team until 1987 when Levinson passed away. This show was a bit different; it actually had two pilot episodes in 1968 and 1971. It originally aired from 1971-1978 in The NBC Mystery Movie series. It alternated with McMillan and Wife, McCloud and Hec Ramsey.  ABC revived the show from 1989-2003, but it was not a weekly show then either. Falk didn’t want a weekly show, so the series was scheduled for one Wednesday a month. For season two, the series was moved to Sunday nights where it continued until 1978.

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Falk with Hector Elizondo–Photo: columbophile.com

In the original concept for the show, Columbo was described as smooth-talking and cultured. The first choice for an actor to play the role was Bing Crosby who declined. When Falk showed up for his audition, he came in wrinkled clothing, aimlessly chattered, and seemed a bit scatter brained so the producers changed the character.

The show had some interesting directors. One of the directors on the show was Steven Spielberg who directed “Murder by the Book.” Falk himself directed the final episode of season one, “Blueprint for Murder.” Nicholas Colasanto who played Coach on Cheers directed two of the shows, “Etude in Black” and “Swan Song.” Patrick McGoohan directed five episodes (including three he guest starred in), as well as producing and writing two others. Falk’s friend actor Ben Gazzara directed “A Friend in Deed” and “Troubled Waters.”

On Columbo, we see the crime being committed long before we meet Lt Columbo (Peter Falk), so we know who committed the crime from the beginning. The fun of the episode is in watching Columbo investigate the crime and how he solves it. Columbo never introduces himself with his first name and no other character in the show uses it either. In season four, Colonel Rumford asks Columbo if he has a first name, and his response is “I do, but usually only my wife uses it.” Apparently, in one episode, a badge is scanned and lists his name as Frank, but William Link stated that Columbo was written without a first name.

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Columbo was a very disheveled detective who always showed up in a rumpled raincoat, smoking a cigar and appearing as if he was not quite all there. Falk used his own wardrobe for the character. The infamous raincoat was one he bought for $15 in 1967 when he got caught in a New York City rainstorm.

However, behind the façade of an inept policeman was a brilliant mind. He asked a lot of seemingly non-essential questions and paid attention to every detail. After interviewing a suspect, he always said, “Just one more thing.” Falk improvised during filming. He might ask for a pencil, search for something or throw in an unscripted line and did it to create a genuine confusion on the part of the other actor so it appeared more realistic.

This was definitely a one-man show, but there were a few characters who had recurring roles: Mike Lally played a bartender in 25 episodes, John Finnegan was Barney on 13 shows, and Bruce Kirby as Sgt George Kramer was seen nine times.

Car history: The Peugeot and the TYV show "Columbo."
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Columbo’s car is a 1959 Peugeot 403. Apparently, only 504 convertibles with two doors were made that year. When NBC cancelled the series, the car was sold. ABC had to locate a replacement when they picked the show up later. You can tell the difference because the license plate from NBC seasons was 044-APD and the plate from ABC shows was 448-DBZ.

Most of the suspects on the show were clever, wealthy people who think they have covered their tracks and have a solid alibi.

For only 68 episodes, there were a lot of famous guest stars on the show.  Some stars even portrayed two different criminals including Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, George Hamilton, Patrick McGoohan, and William Shatner. Other guest stars showing up were Anne Baxter, Johnny Cash, Faye Dunaway, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Ray Milland, Leonard Nimoy, Donald Pleasence, Dick Van Dyke, and Robert Vaughn.

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Falk with Dick Van Dyke–Photo: amazon.com

There was a variety of music written for each episode of the show. The Mystery Movie Theme was written by Henry Mancini and was used for the NBC shows. Both Quincy Jones and Mike Post also wrote versions of The Mystery Movie theme. One song uniquely belonging to Columbo was “This Old Man.” Falk can be heard humming or whistling it in various episodes after it was introduced in a 1973 show.

The show received thirteen Emmys during its run. Falk won the Emmy the first season and again in 1976. He was nominated in 1973, 1977 and 1978 but lost to Richard Thomas, James Garner and Ed Asner respectively. The series was nominated in 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977, and 1978 (winners were Elizabeth R Masterpiece Theater; The Waltons; Police Story; Upstairs, Downstairs; and The Rockford Files).

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The show was very popular and was broadcast in 44 countries. There is a statue of Columbo in his coat in Budapest, Hungary on Falk Miksa Street. The story behind it is that according to then-mayor Antal Rogan, Falk is a relative of Falk Miksa who was a Hungarian writer and politician, but I could not verify if that was true or not.  What is true is that it was put up in 2014 at a cost of $63,000.

When he is questioning witnesses, Columbo often throws in random references to his wife and or something the couple liked to do, but we never see her in the series.  However, later a show was created, Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew. Falk’s real-life wife Shera Danese was cast in six of the Columbo episodes, always appearing as a different character.

A group of novels was adapted from the Columbo tv series by MCA written by Alfred Lawrence, Henry Clements, and Lee Hays.

Columbo has been a popular show in syndication and can currently be seen on ME TV Sunday nights. The shows run from 70-98 minutes which probably makes syndication interesting. The entire set is available on DVD for about $50.

Unfortunately, Peter Falk was diagnosed with dementia in 2007, and by 2009 he could not recognize photos of himself and did not remember playing Columbo. He passed away in 2011.

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It’s been fun looking at these five detectives for this series.  When I put this together, I chose five private eyes I thought would make good articles. What I didn’t realize, is that four of them were all from the same era.  In fact, in 1973, Columbo was on Sunday nights followed by Mannix and both were in the top twenty and on Wednesday nights Cannon was on followed by Kojak and both were in the top ten. The following year, Sunday nights featured Kojak before Mannix which was still in the top 20 and they were on at the same time as Columbo. Cannon eventually moved to Sunday night but also spent part of the year on Wednesdays where it was also in the top twenty. Matlock debuted in the late eighties, after the other shows except Columbo had all gone off the air.

Cannon, Kojak, Mannix, Matlock, and Columbo—five very different types of detectives who had one thing in common: good writing. Check them all out and I’d love to hear which one is your favorite.

Mannix: “The Old-Fashioned” Detective

We are three-quarters through our new blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” and today we are looking at a show that began in 1967 and aired until 1975, producing 194 episodes.

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Created by Richard Levinson and William Link and produced by Bruce Geller, Mannix was one of the most violent television shows during the sixties. Private investigator Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) began working at Intertect which relied on computers and a large network of operatives to help them solve crimes.

CBS was planning on cancelling the show after its debut year, but somehow Lucille Ball convinced them to renew it for another season. (Desilu produced the show.) In season two, Mannix decides to leave and open his own agency. He prefers to solve crimes the old-fashioned way, with his own brain, or as he described it, “A private eye—in the classical tradition.” Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), a widow whose policeman husband was killed in action, became his secretary. Joe was also a father figure for her son Toby. The role of Peggy was planned for Nichelle Nichols but she had to decline due to receiving her role on Star Trek.

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Photo: seasonsepisodes.watch–with Gail Fisher

The cast was rounded out by Lt Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), Sergeant Charley (Ron Nyman), and Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), and police contact Tobias (Robert Reed). Every episode was filled with violent fistfights, car chases, and shoot-outs. During the course of the series, Mannix was knocked unconscious 55 times, drugged about 38 times, and shot 17 times. Connors actually broke his collar bone filming the pilot. The character of Mannix survived many of these situations because he was an expert fighter. He was said to have been a POW during the Korean war. Mannix was also a race car driver and a pilot. He sailed, skied, golfed and was an accomplished pool player. He was said to have grown up in Summer Grove where he excelled in football and basketball.

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Photo: metv.com with Robert Reed

Like Cannon, Joe Mannix relied on a car phone during his investigations. Many viewers felt the scripts were well written and the endings were not easy to predict. The plots relied more on crime-solving techniques but several tackled relevant social topics including compulsive gambling, racism, returning Vietnam War veterans issue, and professionals with physical disabilities such as deafness or blindness working to solve crimes.

The scripts were written by some of the best writers in the business. There were more than 85 writers credited with stories, one of them being Mel Tormé, yep that Mel Tormé.  Other writers were John Meredyth Lucas who wrote for fifty shows including Harry O, Kojak, Ben Casey, and Star Trek; Stephen Kandel who wrote for many shows including Hart to Hart, MacGyver, Hawaii Five-0, and Cannon; and Donn Mullally who also wrote for fifty shows including Ironside, The Virginian, Bonanza, and The Wild Wild West.

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There were a lot of creative shows using visual effects in the sixties and Mannix was one of them. It employed many cutting-edge gimmicks to appeal to fans. Technical filming skills included zooms (moving in for a close-up or out to show something the viewer did not realize was in the scene), rack focuses (a rack focus is the filmmaking technique of changing the focus of the lens during a continuous shot. When a shot “racks,” it moves the focal plane from one object in the frame to another), lens flares (a lens flares adds a sense of drama and a touch of realism to a shot), Dutch angles (which produce a viewpoint of tilting one’s head to the side), both low and high angles, and cameras that could move 360 degrees during filming.

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For you car afficiandos, Mannix had a lot of cool automobiles during the series. For season one, he primarily drove a 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado customized by George Barris who built the Batmobile. For season two, Barris worked on a 1968 Dodge Dart for him.

Season three found him driving another Barris car, a 1969 Dodge Dart. Seasons four through six he drove Plymouth Cudas (a 1970 for four, a 1971 for five, and a 1973 for six). For season seven, he was given a 1974 Dodge Challenger and for the final season, he drove a Chevrolet Camaro LT.

An interesting story about his season two car is that it was sold to a secretary at Paramount Studios and then disappeared for a few decades when it was located near a ranger station in California. It was restored to the Barris condition it had on the show. It was featured in Muscle Machines in December of 2009 and on the show Drive on Discovery HD Theater in 2010. The car is currently owned by C. Van Tune, former editor of Motor Trend magazine.

In addition to special cars in the shows, a lot of celebrities guest starred including Hugh Beaumont, Robert Conrad, Yvonne Craig, Sally Kellerman, Burgess Meredith, Lee Merriwether, Vera Miles, and Diana Muldaur. Some of the more unusual guest spots were filled by musicians Neil Diamond, Buffalo Springfield, and Lou Rawls; comedians Rich Little and Milton Berle; and journalists Art Buchwald, and Rona Barrett.

The theme song was composed by Lalo Schifrin.  Titled, “Mannix,” it was released as a single in 1969 with “End Game” on the B side.

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Connors was nominated for an Emmy four times, Fisher was nominated for four as well, and the series was nominated twice. In 1970, Connors was beat by Robert Young in Marcus Welby, in 1971 Hal Holbrook won for The Bold Ones, Peter Falk won for Columbo in 1972, and in 1973 Richard Thomas won for The Waltons. Fisher lost to Margaret Leighton for Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1971, Ellen Corby for The Waltons in 1973, and Jenny Agutter in The Snow Goose Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1972. The show lost out as best drama to Elizabeth R Masterpiece Theater in 1972 and The Waltons in 1973.

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I do remember watching and enjoying the show when I was in grade school.  I’m guessing I watched it because it was something my parents watched. I think the show has held up well and, considering it was in the midst of the sixties, is not too dated. It would definitely be fun to check out a season or two of the show to see if you can figure out just “who done it.”

Kojak: The Cool Detective

As we continue with a new blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” we find ourselves in New York City on the search for a bald man with a lollipop in each pocket on Kojak

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From 1973-78, Lt. Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas) fought crime in the city with an amazingly upbeat personality. The first choice to play Kojak was Marlon Brando; he was willing to do it, but I never could find out why the network would not approve him. Kojak is known for his catch phrase, “Who loves ya baby.” And that lollipop fetish?  Kojak was trying to cut back on his smoking habit and used suckers as a way to do so.

The show was created by Abby Mann, a television writer. The series had an interesting back story. Universal Television asked Mann to write a story based on a 1963 murder/rape case of Wylie and Hoffert, two women from Manhattan. Because of the attitude of many police about African Americans, after a shoddy investigation, the murders were blamed on George Whitmore Jr. A second investigation proved he was innocent and identified the real killer, Richard Robles who was then sentenced to life in prison. The story Mann created was titled the Marcus-Nelson Murders and Telly Savalas starred in the movie as “Kojack,” and the movie became the pilot for the television show.

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The cast of Kojak. Photo: pinterest

There were several other cast members on the show including Telly’s real-life brother George who played Detective Stavros. Other regulars were Captain Frank McNeil (Dan Frazer), Detective Bobby Crocker (Kevin Dobson), Detective Saperstein (Mark Russell), and Detective Rizzo (Vince Conti).

It has a little bit of 1940s noirish feel mixed with seventies details. Plots frequently deal with the Mob. There were also several jewel heists, bad cops who were murderers, and serial killers.

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A lot of guest stars appeared on the show and so did many of Telly’s friends including Tige Andrews, Jackie Cooper, Michael Constantine, Vincent Gardenia, Daniel J. Travanti, Bernie Kopell, Shelley Winters and Danny Thomas.

Two different theme songs were used for the show. Seasons one through four used “We’ll Make It This Time” composed by Billy Goldenberg with lyrics written by Bill Dyer. The last season’s theme was composed by John Cacavas.

In season one, Kojak was in the top ten. The show aired Wednesday nights on CBS following Cannon, the show we learned about last week.  In season two, the show moved to Sunday nights after Cher and before Mannix (which we’ll discover next week). Seasons two and three the show was in the top twenty. The show had decent ratings the fourth season, but it declined for the fifth season which is when it was canceled.

Two CBS movies were made later–Kojak: The Belarus File in 1985 and Kojak: The Price of Justice in 1987. In 1989 ABC tried to revive the series again with five more movies.

Savalas was won an Emmy in 1974. The show was nominated for best drama series that year as well but lost to Upstairs Downstairs. That exact scenario also occurred in 1975.

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I learned a few fun facts researching the show. One was that Savalas was typically cast as the villain before getting the role of Kojak. Savalas was also a singer who had released five albums between 1972-1980.

For all you vintage automobile fans, Kojak drove two cars during the series: a 1970 Ambassador and a 1972 Alfa Romeo.

One fact that really surprised me was that Queen Elizabeth was said to be an avid fan of the show.

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Telly Savalas seemed destined to play Kojak. Film producer Howard Koch said, “Telly was great in everything. But he was born for ‘Kojak’—those snappy remarks, they were really him.”

At his memorial service, friends remembered how kind he was. A “little old lady” wanted an autograph from him at the exact moment he needed to pay attention to a blackjack game in Vegas. She got the autograph, and he didn’t get the hundreds of dollars he lost that round. They also told a story about one cold day in New York while they were filming and the only thing available for warmth was a lady’s mink coat which Telly proudly wore.

So, when you hear Kojak ask, “Who loves ya baby?,” you can confidently answer “We all love you.”  

Cannon: The Cultured Detective

This month we have a new series, “One-Name Detectives.” Today we are looking at a show that was on for five years in the early seventies: Cannon.

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Cannon was produced by Quinn Martin and aired from 1971-1976 on CBS. Edward Hume developed the show and was also known for his creation of Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, and Toma. Unlike most detective shows, Frank Cannon (William Conrad) was the only member of the cast. There were a few recurring characters including policeman Jerry Warton (Martin Sheen), Lt Paul Tarcher (Charles Bateman), and Officer Bill Murray (Arthur Adams).

Cannon is a detective in Los Angeles.  His backstory is that he was a veteran of the Korean War and a former policeman for the Los Angeles Police Department. He quit the force after his wife and young son were killed in a bomb attack meant for him. He was a man of many talents.  Not only was he street-smart, but he had at least one other college degree, knew several languages and studied science, art, and history. 

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Cannon was overweight and often made jokes about his size, but when he couldn’t get out of a bad situation with his quick wit, he could hold his own fighting the bad guys. Cannon was also a gourmet cook and wine expert and often entertained friends.

Most of the plots involved Cannon solving crimes for private clients, insurance companies or former police colleagues. Cannon was known for his mobile phone in his Lincoln Continental. Car phones were not very common then, but I do remember an episode of That Girl from the early seventies that also featured a Motorola car phone. Cannon usually asked an operator to dial his call while he was driving.

The show debuted in a two-hour movie. The series was picked up and placed on the Tuesday night schedule, following Hawaii Five-0. Season two found the show on Wednesday nights at 10 ET and then at 9 ET for season three where it remained. The first three seasons the show was in the top 20 but in season five, it came in at 39 and was canceled.

Season one featured a short scene before the opening credits giving a preview of the show. For the remaining seasons, the preview was not included.

A lot of famous people stopped by Cannon’s office during this five-year people.  Guest stars included Willie Aames, Whitney Blake, Johnny Cash, Micky Dolenz, Shelley Duvall, Mike Farrell, Joan Fontaine, Dabbs Greer, Mark Hamill, Kim Hunter, David Janssen, Tina Louise, Robert Mandan, Vera Miles, Donna Mills, Leslie Nielsen, Nick Nolte, Stefanie Powers, Denver Pyle, Wayne Rogers, Roy Scheider, Peter Strauss, Vic Tayback, Jessica Walter, Cindy Williams, and William Windom.

The show received three Emmy nominations. The show was nominated in 1973 and Conrad was nominated in 1973 and 1974 (losing to Richard Thomas for The Waltons in 1973 and Telly Savala for Kojak in 1974).

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Nine novels were published based on the show in the 1970s, the first being Murder by Gemini by Richard Gallagher and the last one being Shoot-Out! by Douglas Enefe.

The show is out on DVD and very reasonable.  The entire five-season set can be bought for $32 on amazon. Definitely worth the time to watch a season or two on a week-end.

It’s The Professor and a Whole Lot of Other People: Russell Johnson and Guest Stars

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Russell Johnson was born in Pennsylvania in 1924. He had six siblings. His father died from pneumonia when Russ was only 8, and his youngest brother died the following year. He was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys located in Philadelphia. He struggled early in his education, being held back for a year. In high school he made the National Honor Society.

In 1943, he married Edith Cahoon. They would divorce in 1948.

During World War II, Johnson joined the Army Air Corps and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down in the Philippines in 1945. Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater. Once the war was over, Russ used his GI Bill to enroll in the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood to study acting. While there he met Kay Cousins, and they married in 1949 and were married until her death in 1980.

 

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Johnson’s big-screen career began in 1952. He was a friend of Audie Murphy and would appear in three of his films in the early 1950s. He was in a variety of movies throughout the 1950s, mainly westerns and sci fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space.

 

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Russell began receiving roles on television in 1950. In the 1950s he would be seen on 28 different shows. In 1959 he was offered a role in a western, Black Saddle. Johnson was Marshal Gib Scott. The show was on for one season.

 

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During the 1960s, Russell’s television work increased, and he appeared on 39 series including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Ben Casey, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, Outer Limits, and Big Valley. In 1964 he was offered the role of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, replacing John Gabriel who was a teacher in the pilot. Roy Hinkley was a genius who made complex inventions from the simple materials he found on the island. As we have learned, most of the cast of Gilligan’s Island was typecast after the show was cancelled, and they had a hard time getting other roles. Johnson discussed this circumstance in a later interview: “It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor . . . but as the years have gone by, I’ve given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. . . Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun. It’s brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”

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Although he had trouble at first, he did go on to appear in 45 different shows from 1970-1997, including That Girl, Marcus Welby, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Lou Grant, Bosom Buddies, Dallas, Fame, Newhart, ALF, and Roseanne. He had a recurring role on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from 1971-1973.

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In 1982, Russell married for a third time. He married Connie Dane, and they were married until his death from kidney failure in 2014.

In 1993, he published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle.

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Like so many of the tv icons in the 1960s—Barbara Eden, Adam West, Butch Patrick, David Cassidy, Maureen McCormick—Russell struggled with his alter ego, eventually accepting his role as the Professor. While being tied to one character for 50 years makes it tough to get the roles you want, it’s hard to be critical of a personality that gives such pleasure to decades of viewers and makes you a household name for half a century. Being given the chance to portray a character that America loves is a hazard of the business but is certainly better than never receiving a starring role.

You Never Know Who Might Show Up

With a show like Gilligan’s Island, you would assume it would be almost impossible to have guest stars. After all, they are on a deserted island. Except for the native people who might be living there, where would stars come from? Amazingly, Gilligan’s Island featured many guest stars over the years. Let’s look at a few of them.

Vito Scotti appeared on four different episodes playing Dr. Boris Balinkoff, mad scientist, twice, a Japanese sailor, and a Japanese soldier who does not believe World War II is over.

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Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.

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Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.

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Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.

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Richard Kiel, a Russian agent, pretended to be a ghost to scare the castaways off the island so he could have the oil rights. When the cast turns the tables and acts like ghosts, he didn’t stick around long.

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Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.

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Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.

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John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.

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Don Rickles is con man Norbert Wiley who is hiding out on the island.  He kidnaps Mrs. Howell and later Ginger, planning on getting ransom for each castaway.  After the Professor puts him in jail, Ginger convinces them to let him out for a party.  Norbert steals jewelry and other items from the castaways and leaves the island.

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Phil Silvers crashes onto the island as Herbert Hecuba, arrogant movie producer. He orders everyone around like they’re his servants.  He is not impressed with Ginger’s acting ability, so the castaways write and perform a play to show off her talents. In the middle of the night, Hecuba takes off with their play, claiming it as his own back in the US.

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Sterling Holloway is an escapee from a prison and the owner of a pigeon. The Professor thinks he can get a message back to the States through the pigeon, but when Birdy finds out he is paroled, he sends the bird off first.

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A variety of actors played natives on the show. In all, there were 54 guest stars given credit on the show.

In addition, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, and Jim Backus all had guest starring roles playing people who were look-alikes for Gilligan, Ginger, and Mr. Howell.

I guess it’s a good lesson to always keep up appearances because you never know who might show up when you’re stranded on an island.