Books: Inside Gilligan’s Island

I have often gone browsing through libraries or bookstores when I want to read something but don’t know what. Usually, though, I stick to the fiction section for browsing. If I browse in non-fiction, I at least generally know the topic I’m interested in, most often religion, occasionally cooking.

Last weekend, though, I found myself browsing the non-fiction section of the library, with no idea at all what I wanted to read except that I wanted to learn something. I briefly considering something about gardening, or crafts, but I really didn’t want to learn how to do something. I wanted to learn something just by sitting in a chair and reading.

Then I came to the section on movies and TV. There were books on the making of Jurassic Park and of The Wizard of Oz. Neither of those really interested me, but then I saw exactly what I was looking for: Inside Gilligan’s Island.

I remember clearly the first time I saw the show on TV. Not when it was, but what I saw and what I thought of it. I had overheard some children talking about Gilligan’s Island during recess at school, and I was intrigued. There were some girls stuck on an island, and it was Gilligan who kept them from leaving.

That afternoon I checked the TV schedule, and turned the TV to the right channel at the right time. What I saw was someone relaxing on the beach, and someone else serving him drinks. Huh? What kind of kids’ show was that? Where were the girls, and where was the giant named Gilligan who kept them imprisoned on the island? I figured someone must have made a mistake in the TV schedule, or made a last-minute programming change.

I don’t remember how long after that it was that I actually started watching Gilligan’s Island, and discovered that the “girls” were grown women, and Gilligan was responsible for keeping them on the island not by force but by sheer ineptitude. From then on, I watched it pretty much every day after school, and I’m sure that over the years I must have seen at least every one of the 98 episodes at least once, most of them over and over again.

It never occurred to me, back then, that the show I was enjoying as a child had been originally broadcast for adults to enjoy during prime time in the evening. My parents rarely watched TV, and when they did it wasn’t comedy. As far as I was concerned, fun shows were for kids.

If writer and producer Sherwood Schwartz hadn’t been extremely determined (stubborn, according to those who knew him), Gilligan’s Island would never have been made, and neither adults nor children would have come to love the zany antics of a bunch of castaways. Schwartz came up with the idea, and he knew audiences would love it, but he had a long uphill battle convincing network executives to give his show a try.

One of the key executives liked the idea of the castaways stuck on an island – but only for one episode. After that, they needed to get rescued and go on traveling elsewhere. How could you possibly keep a show interesting, he asked, when the same group of people were in the same place every episode?

Schwartz got the go-ahead to make a pilot, but he was constantly overruled on all sorts of things by someone who was sure he knew what that important executive wanted to see in the show. So much so, that Schwartz took the extraordinary step, after the pilot film had been submitted to the network, of starting over with the raw footage and piecing together his own version of what the pilot should be.

The show was rejected on the basis of the original pilot, and that one executive still didn’t like what Schwartz did with his new pilot film. But the test audiences loved it, and pleasing audiences is what broadcasters are all about. Even so, various executives still wanted to make changes.

Thurston Howell III was too rich. Nobody could identify with a billionaire (and a billion was worth a lot more back in 1964). Ginger should just be a beautiful housewife, not a movie star. The Professor was too intellectual and thus too boring – instead he could be a bank robber pretending to be a professor. And the Skipper ought to be nicer to Gilligan.

The network went so far as to have some script writers – without Schwartz’s knowledge – go ahead and rewrite the script incorporating those changes. And perhaps a few episodes would have been produced – and the audience would have yawned and changed the channel – except that the program’s sponsors heard about the proposed changes.

Schwartz makes the point numerous times in the book that Gilligan’s Island could never have been produced in a later decade (the book was written in the 90’s; no doubt what he says is doubly true today). He, as writer and producer, would not have had the opportunity to argue against the network executives. The audiences would have demanded more realism. And the sponsors would have had no clout with the network.

But in 1964, CBS was not going to risk antagonizing Proctor and Gamble or Phillip Morris. They had bought the show based on the pilot – Schwartz’s version – and that’s the way they wanted it. The proposed changes went in the trash can, and Gilligan’s Island went into production.

I had no idea, either long ago as a child, or even recently until reading Schwartz’s book, what a producer does to produce a show. I’d see the credits on a movie or TV show, and I knew what a director did, and I could imagine what the people responsible for props and stunts and makeup did, but I had no idea what the producer did – especially when all that other stuff was getting done by all those other people. And then there was often an executive producer and an associate producer as well.

Schwartz describes, in a very entertaining way, just what it takes to produce a TV show. He describes dealing with actors who are unhappy with the characters they portray, with changes in the film schedule due to weather or injured or sick actors, with making sure props and scenery are prepared and available, and a host of other administrative and logistic duties.

One sort of interference no one could have predicted, during the filming of the pilot, was the assassination of the president of the United States (this was during November 1963). Even aside from everyone being shocked and distracted by the news, there was the very practical problem that the Honolulu Harbor was closed, for a period of mourning, on what was to be their last day of filming. An already over-extended budget had to be further extended to keep everyone on site until the harbor reopened. (I learned from reading Gilligan’s Island trivia at imdb.com that in the very first shot of the opening credits, you can see the flag flying at half mast.)

I don’t know just how well Gilligan and his companions compare, as cultural icons, with other well-known characters from TV, movies, or books. My sons have never seen an episode of the show, as far as I know. (I have looked for DVDs at the library but they don’t have them. Now I’ve put a hold on a set from another area library.) I have wondered whether Temperance Brennan, the title character of the series “Bones,” and as clueless about popular culture as one can be, has heard of the show. (My guess is not.)

But among my co-workers, the series is fondly remembered. Last Halloween, the network guys dressed up as five of the castaways. I don’t know how much it was because the rest of us also loved the show, and how much because they portrayed the characters so well (OK, so Mike doesn’t make a perfect Mary Ann), but they easily won Best Group Costume.

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