Question: After reading your column about Robert Reed fighting Sherwood Schwartz about the quality of The Brady Bunch, I wonder what the cast of his earlier show, Gilligan's Island, thought. Did any of them complain, too? Neal K., Philadelphia, Miss.
Televisionary: Only Tina Louise gave truly critical quotes to TV Guide during the show's original 1964-67 CBS run, Neal. And Schwartz fired back in kind.
"I was ashamed when I saw the first show," the actress, who played siren Ginger Grant on the series, told TV Guide in 1965. "I had studied at the Actors Studio and I'd started to get some interesting roles and some good reviews. I mean like my scene was singled out in Burke's Law, and there were seven other stars. I only worked on what I wanted to work on in class, things like Desire Under the Elms. Finally I realized that I had to start to go back to commercial work. I'd heard about what series are like, but I really didn't know how it would be. I found that I couldn't use my work at all in this show. It was quite a shock. In this medium, you perform, everyone performs. There's no such thing as a real moment, an honest reaction, because the show is like a cartoon. You're not acting, not the way I studied it. I wouldn't watch it if I wasn't on it.... I don't feel fulfilled doing these shows. Most are not quite inventive."
"I dare say Miss Louise will always feel unfulfilled in what she feels are the extents of her talent on the show," Schwartz said when told of her comments. "I would think she would be delighted. She's an integral part of a major hit. What else does an actress want? I don't know what would make her happy. It seems to me that she's not a very happy person. I don't thoroughly understand her."
Others in the cast didn't kid themselves about the level of art they were turning out Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) said she'd rather be doing Shakespeare, while Bob Denver (Gilligan) said he hadn't yet reached his potential as an actor but they were also well aware of the benefits of being on a hit comedy. "Sometimes in the silence of my lonely room, I would like to do something maybe a little more worthwhile or artistically satisfying," admitted Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III), who spoke with a reporter not long after suffering a macaw bite and enduring a subsequent tetanus shot. "But I enjoy the money and I certainly enjoy the recognition. You're recognized much more than motion-picture people."
Natalie Schafer, the accomplished stage actress who played his wife, agreed to a point. "When I went to New York at Christmas, I was recognized more than when I'm in a play," she said. "You get into a cab and they'll say: 'Aren't you Mr. Magoo's wife?' [Backus also voiced the vision-challenged cartoon character.] I'm being recognized, but by another kind of people. It's supposed to be very good for your ego to have people recognize you in the street. But I look around at the people and I think: 'Oh, dear, if they were just a little more attractive, I'd like it better'."
By the time the show debuted, Schwartz had already faced a seemingly endless barrage of derision, which started as soon as he proposed the series. A former Red Skelton head writer who had Master's degrees in zoology and psychology, Schwartz based the idea on Robinson Crusoe and pulled the name Gilligan from an L.A. phone book because he wanted a "happy name that was also funny." Purposely making the characters extreme clichés so a wide audience could easily identify with them, he shot the pilot in a remote section of Kauai, Hawaii. And then his troubles began.
CBS president Jim Aubrey hated the show and tried to get Schwartz to change it to a scenario where the castaways fix the boat in the second week and spend the series motoring around, having different adventures. Executives also hated the idea of a theme song explaining the setup, a conceit Schwartz insisted was critical. And when Schwartz edited it the way they wanted and sent it to New York without a theme song, they hated the whole pilot. So he cut it his way, wrote and added the famous song and sent his version east for audience testing. The audience loved it to the point that executives thought something had gone wrong and ordered retesting. But the response to the next round was just as positive. So CBS continued monkeying with it three actors from the pilot were replaced and eventually put it on the air.
And the critics hated it. "It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube," wrote UPI's Rick DuBrow. New York Times critic Jack Gould called it "quite possibly the most preposterous situation comedy of the season."
But like their test brethren, audiences ate it up. Six months after it launched, Gilligan's Island was in the Nielsen top three. "God bless America," Schwartz said at the time. "It's a democracy. There ain't no critic who can climb into people's windows and turn off their sets. They tune in to what they want."
No critic... or actress, for that matter.