Voyage of the “Minnow”: The Story of Gilligan’s Island

It is one of the most iconic TV shows of all time, still on the air somewhere in the world every day, with a theme song that everyone knows. Here is the behind-the-scenes history of Gilligan’s Island. So just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale . . .

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In June 1963, TV producer Sherwood Schwartz had a meeting with William Paley, Chairman of the Board at CBS, to pitch a new television show. Schwartz had already worked as a writer on such successful shows as My Favorite Martian and The Red Skelton Show. His new show, he told CBS, was about seven characters who become stranded on a deserted island, and their comic adventures as they attempt to work together with each other to return to civilization. Each character would symbolically represent a different part of American society, Schwartz said–it was a social microcosm. “A what?” asked Paley. “A microcosm.” “I thought it was a comedy?” said Paley. Schwartz later recalled, “I made a mental note to never use the word ‘microcosm’ in a pitch again.”

Paley may not have known what a “microcosm” was, but he certainly knew what a hit TV show was.  An industry heavyweight since the days of radio, Paley had built CBS into an empire–14 of the top 15 shows on air at the time were broadcast by CBS. He approved the production of a pilot for Schwartz’s new show. It would be called Gilligan’s Island.

But from the beginning, Schwartz ran into network meddling. CBS President Jim Aubrey thought that the formula of having the characters on the same island every week wouldn’t work because it would require too much explanation in each episode about how and why the castaways got there. Schwartz dealt with that in a way that was unique at the time–the theme song of the show would itself, at the beginning of each episode, give the entire backstory of how the SS Minnow was shipwrecked during a “three hour tour” (in his next TV series, Schwartz would also use the same technique to explain the backstory of The Brady Bunch). Aubrey then argued that the “castaways on an island” situation would be too limiting and they’d run out of stories too quickly–he wanted a format in which the castaways would be rescued in the first episode, and then the series would follow the adventures of the Skipper and Gilligan as they took new passengers to other locations. Schwartz eventually won the argument by agreeing to allow the castaways to be rescued if the show’s ratings started to slip, but Aubrey, still convinced he was right, then created another show for CBS based on his premise, called The Baileys of Balboa. It bombed on the air.

The Gilligan’s Island pilot had seven characters. Willy Gilligan (the name was picked randomly from a phone book) was the first mate on the tour boat SS Minnow (the boat was named after FCC Chairman Newton Minow, best-known for referring to TV as “a vast wasteland”–Schwartz hated him). The role was originally offered to comedian Jerry Van Dyke, who turned it down in order to play the lead role in another TV show, My Mother the Car. Bob Denver, who had just finished playing a role in the popular The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis series, was cast as Gilligan.

The Minnow’s Skipper, named Jonas Grumby, was, according to the official backstory, a Navy veteran of World War 2 who had served together with Gilligan on a destroyer–Gilligan had saved the Skipper’s life during a depth-charge accident, and they were friends ever since. One of the actors who tested for the “Skipper” role was Carroll O’Connor, who would go on to win fame as “Archie Bunker”. The role went to Alan Hale, Jr, the son of a famous Western movie actor.

Thurston Howell the Third was one of the passengers aboard the Minnow.  He was a billionaire who had lost a fortune in the Depression and was now just a millionaire. The role was played by veteran radio, movie and TV comedian Jim Backus.

Thurston Howell’s wife, Eunice Lovelle Wentworth Howell (known as “Lovey”), was played by veteran actress Natalie Schafer. Later, Schafer admitted that she thought the show wouldn’t last beyond the pilot, and she took the role only because it offered a chance for her to spend some time on Hawaii.

In the original pilot, the remaining three characters were different from the iconic versions known today. Ginger Grant, played by actress Kit Smythe, was a brunette “girl-next-door” secretary. There was no “Mary Ann”–instead, a “dumb blonde” secretary named “Bunny” was played by Nancy McCarthy. The Professor, named Roy Hinckley, was a high school science teacher, played by actor John Gabriel.

The theme song for the original pilot, giving the backstory of the “six hour trip”, was sung by Schwartz himself, to save money. The music, with a calypso theme, was written by then-unknown composer John Williams, who would go on to win several Oscars for movie scores, including the music for Star Wars.

The pilot was filmed on Hawaii in November 1963.  By happenstance, the last day of filming was November 22, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In tribute, one of the sequences in the series main title during the theme song, showing the Minnow leaving port, thereafter included a shot of a US flag at half-mast in the background.

CBS wanted changes. The theme song was shortened, with new music. The Professor was re-cast, and was now played by TV actor Russell Johnson, who was best-known for playing bad guys. (One actor who also unsuccessfully tested for the role was Dabney Coleman, who would go on to star in movies including The Towering Inferno and 9 to 5.) The “Bunny” character was dropped, and replaced by Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers. One of the actresses who auditioned for that part was a young Raquel Welch, soon to star in a leather bikini in One Million Years BC. Pat Priest, who went on to star as “Marilyn” in The Munsters, also auditioned. But the role of Mary Ann went to Dawn Wells, a former Miss Nevada who had never acted in a TV series before. The “Ginger” character was re-written as a glamorous movie star. Schwartz’s first choice for the role of Ginger was Jayne Mansfield, whom he had patterned the character after–she turned it down. Schwartz then approached model and Broadway actress Tina Louise, who at first also turned down the role because she wanted to focus on a serious movie career. According to Louise, she then accepted the role when Schwartz assured her she’d be the star of the show; a story that Schwartz disputes, pointing out that the name of the show, after all, was “Gilligan’s Island”. Louise always hated her part on the show, and asserted that it had killed her career as a motion picture leading lady.

With the casting changes complete, production began, and the first episode aired on CBS on September 26, 1964. A total of 98 episodes were produced (not including the never-aired original pilot). During its entire three-season run, Schwartz continued to have disputes with CBS, over things like Mary Ann’s belly-button and Ginger’s cleavage. The critics hated Gilligan’s Island, dismissing it as mindless fluff–but audiences loved it. The show was consistently in the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings and quickly became a cultural icon.

By the end of its third season, Gilligan’s Island had dropped from the top 30 shows, but was still beating its airtime competitor, The Monkees, in the ratings, so when the show wrapped for the summer break, the cast had been assured it would be picked up for another season. Instead, CBS cancelled the show during the hiatus. According to Hollywood legend, CBS needed to cut one more show from its schedule to make room, and was considering axing the long-running but declining Western series Gunsmoke, when CBS Chairman Paley’s wife Babe, who likedGunsmoke, persuaded him to keep it on the air and cut Gilligan’s Island instead.

After going off the air in 1967, Gilligan’s Island went into syndication, where it continued to pick up new audiences over the years. It has never been off the air since.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.