‘Gilligan’s Island’: A fateful trip behind the scenes
The final episode of Gilligan’s Island premiered on April 17, 1967, and it has remained in syndication for decades. For three seasons, audiences laughed along as the castaways attempted to get off the fateful island. Hop aboard the S.S. Minnow to take a trip behind the scenes of one of the most-watched shows of all time – you’ll even find a few unbelievable bloopers here!
The term ‘Little Buddy’ wasn’t created for the show
After seeing the show, we all know that The Skipper was a softy underneath it all. You may remember that he often referred to Gilligan as his “Little Buddy.” That nickname wasn’t created strictly for the show; this was a phrase that actor Alan Hale Jr. actually used in real life. After hearing the actor calling his fellow castmates and crew “Little Buddy,” Schwartz decided to write it into the show.
If you’re a super Alan Hale Jr. fan, then you might have heard him give that nickname to another television sidekick two years before Gilligan’s Island was ever on the air. In the 1962 episode of The Andy Griffith Show called “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” Hale plays a farmer named “Big” Jeff Pruitt, who refers to his partner, Barney, as his “Little Buddy.”
Raquel Welch almost wound up on the show
Before the show premiered, programming executives wanted to replace the characters who tested the “lowest” with audiences. These characters were The Professor (played by John Gabriel), a high school science teacher, Ginger (played by Kit Smythe), who was originally a secretary instead of a movie star, and Bunny (played by Nancy McCarthy), another secretary.
It was decided that Ginger’s character would be a movie actress instead of a secretary, and Bunny was replaced by the kind and down-to-earth Mary Ann. Raquel Welch auditioned to play the part, but it was believed that she wasn’t girl-next-door enough. We’re pretty positive we’re speaking for everyone when we say that Dawn Wells absolutely killed the role!
Gilligan’s Island stemmed from a question asked by an NYU professor
As the story goes, a professor teaching a public speaking class at New York University had students prepare a one-minute speech to answer a question. His question was, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what one item would you like to have?”
Sherwood Schwartz, a student in the class, took that question with him beyond the course. After working as a comedy writer for television shows, Schwartz pitched an idea for a sitcom using that same question he had heard all those years ago. He thought it would be interesting to have a group of very different individuals on an island learning to live together. Thus, Gilligan’s Island was born.
Gilligan’s first name isn’t Gilligan
Think about it… was Gilligan’s real name ever mentioned in the series? We all just assumed that his first name was Gilligan — and Bob Denver, who played the character, insisted on this fact. Apparently, Schwartz chose the name from the Los Angeles directory, but his original notes say that his name was intended to be Willy.
Schwartz admitted, “Almost every time I see Bob Denver we still argue. 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.”
One cast member did all her own stunts
Natalie Schafer may have been in her 60s when the show was filmed, but that didn’t stop her from getting down and dirty by doing her own stunts. Yes, that means Schafer would jump into the lagoon or fake quicksand without a stunt double. In 1965, she told “Let’s Be Beautiful” columnist Arlene Dahl that she stayed in shape by swimming and by following her special “ice cream diet.”
This diet consisted of eating nothing but a quart of ice cream a day. She lost three pounds in five days with this particular diet. Oh, and when she swam in her backyard pool? She made a point of saying that she did so in her birthday suit.
The millionaire was stingy
Jim Backus, who played Mr. Howell (aka the millionaire), was known for being extremely cheap. Dawn Wells wrote in What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life that during the first season, he would invite her and Natalie Schafer out to lunch … and then realize later on that he forgot his wallet when the check rolled around.
Backus eventually paid his dues (literally). Before the cast decided to leav for a summer hiatus after the wrap party, Schafer gave Backus a bill for $300, which was the amount that he owed her for those meals he never paid for.
In the original credits, two major characters weren’t mentioned
During the first season of the show, the opening credits ended with the lyrics, “the moo-vie star,” and a photo of Ginger, with the words, “and also starring Tina Louise as ‘Ginger,’” written at the bottom. The theme song ended with a rushed, “and the rest.” The reason for this was that Tina Louise’s contract stated no one would follow her name in the credits.
The only other cast member who was mentioned in the credits was Jim Backus, who was a show-business veteran. It was during the show’s second season that Bob Denver approached producers and asked for Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells to be added to the opening credits. He argued that their characters were just as significant as the other characters in the show, and they should be mentioned.
There was tension between some cast members
It was revealed in the Jan. 23, 1965 edition of TV Guide that there were some tensions on set between Tina Louise and the rest of the cast. The article read, “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.”
It continued, “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.” (Apparently, that’s what her agent had pitched to her.)
Alan Hale Jr. broke his arm while filming but continued acting
Alan Hale Jr. was quite a dedicated actor. In Inside Gilligan’s Island, Schwartz remembers speaking with Hale during the season-one wrap party, when he made a comment that confused him. Hale explained that now that shooting was over, he could take care of his arm. When asked what had happened to his arm, he casually said, “Oh, I broke it a few weeks ago.”
Hale explained that three weeks before, he missed the crash pads when he fell out of a coconut tree and broke his arm on the stage. He never brought it to anyone’s attention as to not disrupt filming. Schwartz, who was shocked, exclaimed, “How did you manage to haul coconuts and lift Bob Denver with a broken arm?” To which Hale responded, “It wasn’t easy.”
Dawn Wells still receives royalties thanks to a smart business move
When the original actors signed on, their contracts guaranteed them a certain amount of money per episode plus payment for the first five repeats of each one. Well, Dawn Wells, whose husband was a talent agent at the time, gave her a smart tip that would work in her favor.
Larry Rosen told her to ask for an amendment to that clause in her contract. The producers agreed, as they never thought the series would air 50 years later. Due to this amendment, Dawn Wells, and the estate of the late Sherwood Schwartz, are the only two people who receive money from the show.
Bob Denver almost died on set
There was a scene where Gilligan was supposed to be in Howell’s hut, piling up the furniture at the door to keep a lion at bay — and during the filming of this scene, Bob Denver had a small brush with death.
Dawn Wells recalled, “even the trainer had claw marks all over him.” The lion jumped at Denver in the middle of the scene. Wells claimed that Denver’s reaction was to hilariously “karate chop” at the lion. When the lion jumped off of the twin beds it was standing on, they split apart, and the trainer tackled the lion in midair. Denver, who once spoke of the incident, recalled, “My hair stood on end.”
There were probably a few bloopers you missed
Look, the show wasn’t perfect, and there’s bound to be some errors here and there, but these goofs just made the show even more charming. In the episode, “They’re Off and Running,” you can see Bob Denver’s wedding ring still present on his finger. Looks like he must have forgotten to remove it before filming started!
In the episode, “The Friendly Physician,” buildings can be seen over the trees that surround the lagoon, which are probably part of the Los Angeles skyline. One of the more hilarious goofs occurred in the first episode. In the opening credits, the S.S. Minnow is leaving the port as the theme song rings through saying, “Five passengers set sail that day.” However, eight people can be seen on the boat.
The Coast Guard received interesting telegrams about the castaways
Apparently, there were some “good Samaritans” out there that weren’t really paying attention. They ended up contacting the Coast Guard, urging them to rescue the castaways from the island. Some severely confused viewers believed the premise of the show’s premiere in 1964 was real. Producer Sherwood Schwartz actually received a message from the Coast Guard, along with some letters from viewers.
One of the examples of these very outlandish letters read, “For several weeks, now, we have seen American citizens stranded on some Pacific island. We spend millions in foreign aid. Why not send one U.S. destroyer to rescue those poor people before they starve to death?”
Six women have played Ginger over the years
Tina Louise was perfect in the role of the dramatic and beautiful starlet, although she didn’t love the part completely. For spin-off shows and sequels, other actresses had to step in to play Ginger. When Louise decided to walk away from the character, she was replaced by Judith Baldwin.
She was replaced by Constance Forslund in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. In the 1974 animated show, The New Adventures of Gilligan, Jane Webb did the voice of Ginger, and in the 1982 cartoon, Gilligan’s Planet, Dawn Wells played both Mary Ann and Ginger. That wasn’t the only thing that changed… Did you notice she never wore the same thing twice? Interesting how new fashion appeared out of thin air for Ginger…
One cast member lied about her age
Natalie Schafer didn’t exactly tell the truth about her age while filming, but eventually, the truth was revealed. She was over a decade older than her husband in the show, Jim Backus. Fans of the show were shocked when they discovered the news, as Schafer always looked so fantastic!
Schafer went to great lengths so that the others would not find out about their age gap. When signing on to the show, there was a clause in her contract that stated that she could never be filmed up close. This was so her supposed wrinkles wouldn’t give away her age.
Tina Louise never fully escaped from Gilligan’s Island
Although other actresses would go on to fill the role of Ginger in the television movies and cartoons, Tina Louise couldn’t leave the show behind for good as she intended. Despite having an active film career after the show’s run, she still blames the show for ruining her career.
She now lives in New York City, where she remains a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a member of The Actors Studio. Louise has been an active advocate for improving child literacy. She donated a portion of the proceeds from her 2007 book, When I Grow Up, to literacy programs. She said in a 2013 interview that she had been volunteering at local public schools since 1996.
‘The Skipper’ had a real name
You may think that Skipper’s name was just “Skipper the Skipper,” but it seems like fans missed a small detail in the first episode, where his name was revealed. If you listen carefully during the first episode that aired in 1964, the Skipper does actually say his real name. His full name was Jonas Grumby, and the name was never mentioned again.
The postmodern 2003 novel, Gilligan’s Wake, which is not tied to the show, creates a dark backstory for The Skipper that says he likely served with Quinton McHale of McHale’s Navy. Although it isn’t official, it’s certainly something we would like to be real.
Jayne Mansfield almost joined the cast
Jayne Mansfield was a beloved blonde bombshell actress at the time whose career was taking a dip when Gilligan’s Island was recasting. When it was decided that the character of Ginger would be a movie star instead of a secretary, Mansfield was approached for the part. But it was not to be.
She turned down the role at the advice of her third husband. She continued to take small parts in films and would make appearances at nightclubs. A few years later, Mansfield passed in an automobile accident in Louisiana while driving to a television interview. She was 34 years old at the time.
Mary Ann was a fan favorite
During an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Dawn Wells was asked if the rumor that she received 3,000 to 5,000 letters a week from fans was correct. She admitted that although it wasn’t that many, she still received a good amount of fan mail.
She also admitted that sometimes the letters got a little too creepy, saying, “I’d say some of the fans stretched their imagination quite a bit. It’s a very interesting thing with men, because they follow you. I get proposed to all the time.” She added that one time, a fan wrote to remind her that it was their anniversary and that he had been writing her for 35 years.
The ship, ‘S.S. Minnow,’ wasn’t named after a fish
The name of the castaways’ boat received its name for a reason, and it wasn’t because of the small baitfish with the same name. The television boat was named for Newton Minow, whom producer Sherwood Schwartz believed “ruined television.”
Newton Minow was the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1961. Minow is also known for snubbing the television of the time, referring to it as “a vast wasteland.”
The prefix of the boat, “S.S.,” was used for boats that ran on steam at the time. Although this may be true, there have been some instances in the show that imply the Minow was run on a gasoline engine or a diesel engine. If this were true, then the correct prefix would either be “M.V.,” for motor vessel or “M.Y.,” for a motor yacht.
Veterans loved Mary Ann
It’s no secret that Mary Ann was a favorite character of audiences (especially of the male audience members). But it seems that her role held a deeper meaning for veterans. During an interview with Forbes, Dawn Wells admitted that her character meant a lot to Vietnam War vets at the time.
She said, “You know, many vets from Vietnam have said that Mary Ann kept them going, helping them make it through, kept them positive and focused on returning safely. They kept my picture in their helmets. I have the utmost respect for what it takes to be one of America’s finest, and am very thankful for what they do.”
There was almost a fourth movie
Schwartz had plans for a fourth movie, and the plot revolved around the castaways finding out that a nuclear war has wiped out human civilization.
Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, explained, “The seven of us think it’s destroyed and we get married. Gilligan marries Mary Ann and they have a baby boy. The Professor marries Ginger and they have a baby girl.”
He continued, “And then there’s a Blue Lagoon sequence where the kids grow up, so when Gilligan’s son is 20, he sails off to see whether the world is really destroyed, and of course, it isn’t. They heard it on the radio, and Gilligan broke it just before the disclaimer came on.”
The millionaire’s wife really was a millionaire
Mrs. Lovey Howell — or “the millionaire’s wife,” as the opening song suggests — was played by Natalie Schafer. She only accepted the invitation to play the role because she would receive a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot. Although we’re sure she could have afforded a trip on her own, considering she was a millionaire in real life.
When she died, she left a sizable amount of her fortune to her poodle since she had no children, and the money was to be donated to the Motion Picture & Television Fund hospital after the poodle died. Rumors say that she also left a sum to Gilligan’s Island costar Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann. Wells lived with Schafer and cared for her during her battle with breast cancer.
They didn’t film on an actual island
Although it may have appeared as an oasis, the set was built specifically for the show by CBS on their Studio City, California lot in 1964. They attempted to film two episodes in Malibu, but due to dense fog, there was a lot of standing around. Although the cast switched over to a studio, there were still some issues.
Filming had to pause when traffic could be heard from the nearby freeway, and the water temperature sat at a daunting 40 degrees during the winter months.
Due to the freezing “lagoon” water, Bob Denver had to wear a wet suit under his costume. After filming, in 1995, the lagoon was turned into an employee parking lot.
The show was canceled to free the time slot
During the 1966 to 1967 television season, the show aired on Monday nights at 7:30 p.m. The competition for the show during that time was The Monkees, which aired at the same time on NBC.
During this time, CBS was in the midst of canceling their long-running Western, Gunsmoke, which aired Saturday nights.
Pressure from William S. Paley and other longtime fans of Gunsmoke forced CBS to reschedule the Western to the 7:30 p.m. Monday time slot. As a result of this change, Gilligan’s Island was canceled virtually last minute, and it happened while the cast was away on vacation. Yikes!
There was a spin-off that didn’t make it past the first season
Jim Aubrey, former president of CBS, personally hated Gilligan’s Island and had very little faith in the success of the show. Because of this, he decided to create a spin-off of the show called The Baileys of Balboa, which premiered the same season.
The goal of this show was to prove that Gilligan’s Island would have been better had they gone with his original idea. The Baileys of Balboa followed the Bailey family, who lived at a beach resort, and they would often find themselves in conflict with their wealthier neighbors.
The show was canceled after a single season, and afterward, Aubrey was fired from the network.
The movie was meant to tie up loose ends after the cancellation
When the show was suddenly canceled, fans had many questions, one of them probably being, “So, did they ever get rescued or did they just live on the island for the rest of their lives?” Well, they were eventually rescued, but it wasn’t on the series.
They decided to tie up the cliff-hanger from the end of season three with a reunion movie in 1978. The film was called Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. The movie received high ratings, as fans adored it just as much as the series. After the first movie, a second movie titled Castaways on Gilligan’s Island was created to follow.
Schwartz’s legacy lives on
To this day, Gilligan’s Island remains in syndication, and there have been musical versions of the series popping up over the years. Surprisingly, the sitcom is a massive hit in Australia, along with The Brady Bunch, which was also created by Sherwood Schwartz.
Hope Juber, who is the daughter of Sherwood Schwartz, told MeTV.com that she still keeps in touch with Russell Johnson’s daughter and Alan Hale Jr.’s granddaughter.
Juber still has The Skipper’s hat that Alan Hale Jr. gifted her father back in the day. She explained, “Alan Hale Jr. presented [Schwartz] with the bronzed hat as a meaningful, sentimental gesture. I think that by bronzing the hat it was a way of not only keeping it protected and preserved but also immortalizing it.”
Jerry Van Dyke almost got the lead
Although Schwartz was sincerely hoping to get Jerry Van Dyke to play the bumbling Gilligan, Van Dyke wasn’t too impressed with the script. He even exclaimed that the pilot script was “the worst thing I’d ever read.” Instead of taking the role of the goofy first mate, Van Dyke took the lead in My Mother the Car instead.
Van Dyke recalls, “I had a lot of problems with the agency, because they were trying to push me into taking [Gilligan’s Island], 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!”
Alan Hale Jr. traveled to his audition via horseback
This probably seems fitting as The Skipper was a hard-as-nails character. He was also the last character to be cast, as Schwartz had trouble finding the perfect fit. He wanted a strong and billowing actor that could handle The Skipper’s tough-but-caring personality.
Alan Hale Jr. was filming Bullet for a Bad Man in St. George, Utah when he received a call for Gilligan’s Island. Since he was so busy, he was unable to get time off for a screen test, so he had to sneak off the set one day after filming. He journeyed to Los Angeles via horseback, hitchhiking, airplane, and taxi cab to read a scene with Bob Denver.
There was a plan to add an animated dinosaur to the show
The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, writes in his book, Inside Gilligan’s Island, that a Gilligan dinosaur was almost a real thing. During a meeting with CBS programming executive Hunt Stromberg Jr., Stromberg pitched an idea where Gilligan (casually) finds a dinosaur and then keeps it as a pet.
Schwartz recalls Stromberg exclaiming, “Just picture it! Gilligan and his pet dinosaur! It’s our answer to ‘Mr. Ed!’” It’s probably a good thing this plan didn’t move forward because we can’t exactly picture a dinosaur running around on the island with the castaways.
Schwartz (luckily) hated the plan and claimed it wasn’t possible due to budget constraints.
Fans were found in the strangest places
Years after the show stopped filming, the cast would always find fans in unexpected places. In 2001, Russell Johnson (who wasn’t a real professor by the way), was asked to speak at a biochemical conference held in San Francisco. He hilariously recalls, “There were four or five hundred PhDs there, and every one of them was a Gilligan’s Island fan.”
There was another instance where Bob Denver took his wife out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Chicago called the Pump Room. Upon entering, the trio that were playing live classical music switched up their usual setlist with an interesting number. They began playing “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island.”
The characters are meant to represent the different elements of society
You may think that the characters on the show have very bizarre personalities, but that was done on purpose by the producer and creator of the show. The producer, Sherwood Schwartz, created these very diverse characters as a way to represent the very extreme and different parts of society.
This is perhaps why some of the characters, such as the Professor and the Skipper, are referred to by their titles, instead of their actual name. For example, let’s consider the character of the movie star, Ginger. Her over-the-top and very seductive and posh personality is meant to represent the vanity that exists in the world, and how people are very self-obsessed. It looks like a lot more went into the plot of the show than we thought!
The prop and set crew had a big challenge on their hands
When you think about it, the set and the props required a lot of hands-on deck. Every prop that was created, had to be created from something that the character’s could have found on the island. This is why almost every prop was made from wood and coconuts.
This means that even the weirdest and the most unique props had to be made from these simple materials. One of the most favorite props was the foot pedal-powered car that was created using real bamboo. Apparently, the cast was obsessed with this special prop, and they would line up to try it.
Dawn Wells wasn’t the best singer
Dawn Wells may have been a terrific actress and may have played the favorite character, but there was something that Wells couldn’t do perfectly. The actress was actually very tone deaf. Whenever the cast had to sing as a group (like when they sing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), she wasn’t allowed to sing.
Her voice was so off-key that it would throw everyone else off the notes. Her singing voice was dubbed over with the voice of singer/songwriter, Jackie DeShannon. Wells’ real voice was only used once, and it was in Gilligan’s Island: The Second Ginger Grant, where her terrible voice was part of the plotline.
Russell Johnson was in the military before becoming an actor
Russell Johnson played the Professor on the show, but he wasn’t always interested in being an actor. Before launching his acting career, Johnson was enlisted into the United State Army Air Force after high school as an aviation cadet. He received a purple heart for all of his contributions to the air force while in the Philippines.
After World War II, Johnson used the GI Bill to pay for acting lessons. Although his career was held up a little bit after Gilligan’s Island, he went on to appear in a few independent films. He passed away at the age of 89, due to kidney failure.
Dawn Wells had a flourishing career
Before landing the role of the beloved Mary Ann, Dawn wells was already a small-time actress for television. After Gilligan’s Island, she decided to venture into the realm of theater, and she starred in over 100 productions. Wells even had a one-woman show in Las Vegas held at the MGM Hotel and Casino in 1985.
More recently, Wells became the Marketing Ambassador for MeTV Network. The network released a statement saying, “Dawn Wells will serve as the MeTV Marketing Ambassador for the coming year, bringing her talent, warmth and generous spirit to a variety of MeTV appearances, performances, and events.”
Bob Denver also had a fantastic career following the show
Bob Denver actually started out as a comedian, not an actor. (This probably makes sense, seeing as Gilligan is a hilarious character in the show.) He also went on to star on other TV comedy series such as The Good Guys, Dusty’s Trail, and Far Out Space Nuts.
Following these television shows, Denver went on to see some success on Broadway with his appearance in Woody Allen’s play, Play It Again, Sam. He earned high praise from The New York Times critic, Clive Barnes for having “a genuine clown-like wistfulness.” Later on, he became an FM radio personality in his hometown, Princeton, West Virginia.
This article was originally published on History 101: Gilligan’s Island: A fateful trip behind-the-scenes