Gilligan's Island: Behind-the-Scenes Facts From the Beloved Comedy

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

When Gilligan's Island premiered in 1964, no one — not even the show's producers — was prepared for how successful the quirky comedy would become. The fate of the shipwrecked passengers of the S.S. Minnow became a focal point of American television and a fan-favorite sitcom to enjoy each week. Still, however dramatic the onscreen action was for the cast of characters, the events behind the scenes were just as intriguing.

The Plot Was Almost Entirely Altered

Gilligan's Island focuses on, as the name suggests, a group of shipwrecked tourists building a life together on an abandoned island. While it's difficult to imagine the premise of this show being altered, the original concept wouldn't have had the sorry bunch of stranded folks staying together for long.

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Photo Courtesy: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early on in production, a CBS executive thought that the shipwreck storyline would only be viable for one episode. They suggested that Gilligan and The Skipper repair their ruined ship and spend the rest of the seasons transporting people to different islands. Fortunately, this alternate plot never came to fruition.

Russell Johnson Was Asked to Strip

Have you ever noticed that The Professor is never shirtless during the show? This isn't by any accident. The hunky actor behind the part, Russell Johnson, had disliked the idea of removing his shirt since the beginning of the show's production.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/IMDb

During his audition for The Professor, Johnson was asked to take off his top. While most actors would be willing to do anything within reason in an audition room to secure a role, Johnson flat out refused to strip off his shirt. Despite his unwillingness to comply with the request, he was still cast.

The Story Was Conceived in a Classroom

The show's creator, Sherwood Schwartz, didn't pull the concept for Gilligan's Island out of thin air. Rather, he was inspired by a lecture in a public speaking class at New York University. His professor posed a unique question to his classroom: "If you were stranded on a deserted island, what one item would you like to have?"

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/Getty Images

While the lecture left most students' minds, Schwartz held onto the concept for years after leaving academia. Although he kickstarted his career with comedy writing, he eventually used the inspiration to develop the concept for Gilligan's Island that fans know and love today.

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JFK's Assassination Influenced the Release Date

The pilot for Gilligan's Island was shot on the island of Kauai in Hawaii during November of 1963. The final day of filming was supposed to occur on November 23, during which the S.S. Minnow would depart from Honolulu Harbor on its doomed mission. However, shooting was interrupted by the tragic news of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

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Photo Courtesy: Cecil Stoughton/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Plenty of the filming schedules for other television shows were affected by the nation’s grief following the assassination. However, the cast of Gilligan's Island quite literally could not film; Honolulu Harbor was closed for two days after Johnson took over the presidency.

The Show Was a Reflection on "World Politics"

Gilligan's Island is witty, funny and well-written in every curve of its plot. Still, most people wouldn't classify the sitcom as a crucial piece of political commentary...except for the show's creator, of course. As Schwartz conceived the idea for the show, he saw it having a clear political consciousness.

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The show features a cast of odd and contradictory characters attempting to build a society together. Schwartz meant for this to serve as a metaphor for "a social microcosm and a metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that...we can all get along."

Gilligan Was Nearly Jerry Van Dyke

Bob Denver brings a charming awkwardness to the character of Gilligan that now seems impossible to replicate. However, he wasn't the first choice to play the star of the show. Instead, the central pick was the coveted Jerry Van Dyke — Dick’s little brother.

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Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

When approached about the role in 1964, Van Dyke turned down the offer. Why? He didn't want to waste time in an ensemble. Instead, he wanted to create his own show like his brother and enjoy solo success. However, he didn't fulfill this goal; the part was certainly a missed opportunity to become a sitcom star.

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Louise Thought She Was the Star

Tina Louise's agent convinced her to join the show with the pitch that the sitcom was about an actress stranded on a deserted island with a group of strangers. She thought she would play this starring lead. Instead, she was cast in a secondary role. This created clear tension between her and her castmates.

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TV Guide noted, "Denver will not say why he and the glamorous Tina [Louise] do not get along, nor will any of the castaways… Part of Louise’s dissatisfaction with the series was that she had expected to be the star of the show."

The Skipper Didn't Break Character

Alan Hale has an impressive track record, starring in over 70 films and television shows spanning from the time he was a young boy well into adulthood. It's no wonder that he remained a dedicated actor even when the cameras stopped rolling. Hale often remained in character as The Skipper (fortunately, a loveable character) outside of the studio to bring joy to fans.

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Not only did Hale stick to his onscreen personality, but he also entertained his castmates while concealing insecurities to remain positive onset. Can you imagine what a blast one of Hale's belly laughs would be behind the scenes?

Gilligan Almost Had a Pet Dinosaur

Do you think that the cast of kooky, shipwrecked characters is bizarre enough by itself? Why not toss in a dinosaur? As strange as it sounds, one CBS executive, Hunt Stromberg Jr., thought that it would be a remarkable idea to insert an animated dinosaur into the show.

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In Stromberg Jr.'s ideal world, Gilligan would’ve tamed and befriended the island's dinosaur, adopting the ancient creature as his personal pet. In Schwartz's book, "Inside Gilligan's Island," he recalled Stromberg saying, "Just picture it! Gilligan and his pet dinosaur!" Fellow executives quickly shut the idea down.

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The Opening Jingle Erased Mary Ann and The Professor

Mary Ann and The Professor are central to the plot of Gilligan's Island, yet they were once cut out of the show's theme song. In the first season of the show, the opening song featured the names of Gilligan and other primary characters but referred to both Mary Ann and The Professor only as "the rest."

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Bob Denver wasn't happy with this character erasure. He personally asked the studio executives to write the others’ names in or take his own out. Luckily, they decided to add the other names to the song rather than remove the primary character from the jingle.

The Cast Members Had a Favorite Scene Type

Of all the fun and strange scenes in Gilligan's Island, what was the cast's favorite type of scene to shoot? Dream sequences. According to the cast members, these were a blast to film, as they removed the characters from the island and were often bizarre, fun and hilarious to shoot.

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In an interview with Forbes, Dawn Wells shared, "I like the dream sequences most… I don’t know if it was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or a courtroom — but in one of them I got to do a wonderful Cockney accent. That was the most fun, I think."

Mrs. Howell Was an Actual Millionaire

Natalie Schafer didn't have to pull too many strings to pretend to be a millionaire...because she already was one. She and her husband actor Louis Calhern had made great purchases in the California real estate market during an economic downswing. They were sailing by on millions when Schafer accepted the role.

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Why did she accept the job on Gilligan's Island? A free trip to sunny Hawaii, of course. After her death, she left several million dollars to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in her name.

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Alan Hale Rode a Horse to His Audition

After a fruitless search for the perfect Skipper, Alan Hale was asked to audition. At the time, Hale was in the middle of filming a Western, Bullet for a Badman, in Utah. The producers couldn't grant him a day off, so he sneaked away for the audition...and cleverly improvised his transportation.

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After sneaking away, Hale made his way to Los Angeles. How did he get there? By taxi, plane, car and a trusty horse. Yes — Hale rode a literal horse part of the way to the airport and still made it back to Utah the next day.

Dawn Wells Met Fans on a Literal Island

Celebrities should be able to get away from fans on remote islands with no water or electricity...right? Think again. While on a vacation with pals in 1990, Dawn Wells canoed out to a remote area in the Solomon Islands, expecting peace and quiet.

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Instead, when the group arrived, they were invited to the hut of the island village's chief. There, according to the LA Times, the chief's wife announced, "'I know you. In 1979, I was going to nursing school in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, and I used to come home and watch you in black and white!'"

The Lagoon Was in a California Studio

Gilligan's Island was set in sunny Hawaii, but not every scene was shot on location. Although the crew attempted to film shots in nature, the conditions didn't always support successful filming. As a result, they were forced to move into CBS studios in California to shoot the lagoon scenes.

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What was the lagoon? A large, concrete dip in the ground full of water. During rush hour, they had to stop shooting, as nearby freeway noise impeded recording. When the lagoon wasn't in use, it was drained and turned into a parking lot. Who knew?

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Bob Denver Was Almost Mauled by a Lion

While Gilligan's Island seems to be fairly low-risk, Bob Denver nearly lost his life after a scene with a lion went horribly wrong. In the scene, Gilligan barricaded the door of the Howell hut closed to escape a lion on the island, unaware that the creature was inside with him.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

Although this was all part of the plot, the lion wasn't supposed to attack. Still, it roared and leaped towards a terrified Denver with frightening aggression. Fortunately, the bed it was standing on split apart, and its trainer had time to tackle it before the big cat could cause any permanent damage.

Mary Ann Helped Vietnam Vets

Wells was one of the sweetest starring characters in the comedic show, yet the impact she had on the lives of Vietnam War vets is no laughing matter. Surprisingly, many soldiers found comfort in Gilligan's Island — particularly the charming role of Mary Ann.

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In a Forbes interview, Dawn Wells revealed, "Many vets from Vietnam have said that Mary Ann kept them going...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."

Tina Louise Claimed Her Career Was Ruined

Tina Louise is well-known for her role on Gilligan's Island, yet she claimed that the show tanked her career. Throughout filming, Louise wasn't happy with how her character was being portrayed and wanted to manipulate her personality. She frequently clashed with studio executives over her character's behavior.

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Despite enjoying moderate success after the show concluded, she continually claimed that Gilligan's Island was not only negative but ruined her career as a serious actress. Whether she had an ego problem or her concerns were legitimate, she refused to participate in any reunion projects with the cast.

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Audiences Thought the Shipwreck Was Real

Although Schwartz's comedic creation is not based on a true tale, some viewers thought that the sitcom was real. The sets were pretty good and the actors appeared authentic, but it seems pretty evident that it wasn't a reality show, right?

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Apparently not. Some audiences were so unsettled that they took it upon themselves to contact the Coast Guard and ask why it had not yet rescued Gilligan and the sorry bunch he was wrecked with. Many good samaritans flooded the Coast Guard with angry telegrams, unaware that the events of the show were entirely fictional.

Natalie Schafer Was Her Own Stunt Double

Despite being worth a great deal of money (and being in her mid-60s during filming), Schafer wasn't afraid to perform risky scenes onset. For the majority of her stunts, she refused the help of a stunt double, insisting on diving into the action herself.

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Throughout her time on the show, she boldly leaped into quicksand pits and lagoons, all while looking absolutely fabulous. What was her secret to remaining so fit? Swimming in the nude, doing leg kicks and, according to an interview with MeTV, eating "a quart of ice cream a day."

Jim Backus Was a Cheapskate

Jim Backus may have played a millionaire on the show, but in real life, he was a total cheapskate. Although he had a friendly personality, he often liked to go out to lunch with his coworkers...and conveniently forget his wallet every time.

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"Off camera, Jim stayed in character like an upper crust New Englander worth millions, but when it came time to buy lunch, he left his co-stars with the bill," the National Enquirer reported. Backus was billed by his female castmates at the end of one season for $300 worth of meals that they’d covered.

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Denver Was Nothing Like Gilligan

Gilligan's quirky, awkward, bumbling personality is what gives Gilligan's Island its true charm. Although Denver's portrayal of the role is the glue that holds the sitcom together (and he seemed to perform Gilligan's traits with ease), he was nothing like his famed character in real life.

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"Bobby Denver was the opposite of the character he played," Russell Johnson told MeTV. "He was a schoolteacher… He’s very straight and organized, not this bumbling guy… But anyway Bob was not like that at all." Considering Denver’s talent, it's almost hard to believe that his portrayal of Gilligan wasn't authentic.

Hale Hid a Broken Arm

At the end of the first season of Gilligan's Island, Alan Hale mentioned to Schwartz that he was grateful he'd finally have time off for his arm to heal. Schwartz was alarmed to find out that Hale had broken the limb three weeks prior when he missed a landing pad falling out of a tree on the set.

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Hale didn’t want to miss shooting, so he didn't let any of the cast or crew know that he was severely injured. Instead, he powered through strenuous scenes, several of which featured him carrying heavy objects — including Bob Denver — with his broken arm.

The Ship Was Named out of Spite

The S.S. Minnow wasn't named after a fish. Instead, Schwartz named the ship after a grumpy Federal Communications Commission president, Newton Minow. What drama did Schwartz have with Minow that made him name the wrecked ship the way he did?

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Minow didn't believe in television and felt that it did far more harm than good. In his most famous speech, he called television "a vast wasteland" and felt that the government should fund educational programming instead of sitcoms and similar shows. Of course, television did — and does — thrive, sending Minow's original opinions out to sea.

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Wells Is Still Collecting Payments

Almost every star on Gilligan's Island stopped reaping the rewards of their involvement in the show shortly after the program concluded. However, actress Dawn Wells is still collecting payments from the sitcom to this day. How is this possible?

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While most of the actors signed a contract that only guaranteed them post-filming payment for the first five reruns of their episodes, Wells' former husband, agent Larry Rosen, pushed for a more financially enriching contract. The producers didn't know that the show would be so popular, and they amended her contract for rerun payments into the 21st century.

Louise Loved One Cast Member

It's no secret that Louise had a strained relationship with the Gilligan's Island cast. However, she supposedly appreciated the presence of Jim Backus. Louise told Fox, "The person that made me smile...was Jim Backus. He was the funniest, most adorable man… It was his birthday and he had very bad Parkinson’s."

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"There was a big event going on that night… I was going to dance with him… When [Jim] sat next to me, I asked him if he wanted to dance. He stood up and I danced with him. I will never forget that night with him."

The Reunion Extras Were Bystanders

In Rescue From Gilligan's Island, Lloyd J. Schwartz (the creator's son) had the bright idea to get extras without ruining the budget. Schwartz admitted, "We didn’t have a lot of money… We were going to have the castaways being towed… There’s supposed to be thousands of people there cheering them on."

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"We didn’t have money for extras, so I...sent the assistant director out to tell everybody everywhere around the area that we were filming Gilligan’s Island… All of those extras were just regular people who wanted to get a look at the cast."

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Gilligan's Island Inspired a Reality Show

While the plot of Gilligan's Island was entirely fictional, some television executives wanted to bring the jarring show to life with a reality series in 2004. The show, called The Real Gilligan's Island, featured a cast of contestants who were forced to try to complete bizarre tasks inspired by the show.

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Photo Courtesy: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Fortunately, they didn't force the contestants to go through the trauma of an actual shipwreck. Still, producers put them on an island in the Mexican Carribean and had them compete in challenges that were related to the plot of Gilligan's Island.

Gilligan's Full Name Is Willy Gilligan

Although the titular character is typically referred to only as "Gilligan," he has a first name in writing: "Willy Gilligan." This may not seem that significant, but for star actor Denver and writer Schwartz, it became a point of conflict in their working relationship.

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According to Snopes, Schwartz shared, "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.’"

The Show Ended on a Cliffhanger

By the end of the third season, Gilligan's Island was still enjoying significant success. Schwartz was certain that a fourth season was in the bag. He was so confident that he convinced several castmates that there was no chance of cancelation, causing them to buy homes near the set in Los Angeles.

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Unfortunately, the show was canceled at the last minute to make room for a new drama called Gunsmoke. Audiences were crushed, as they had yet to see the fate of the castaways. The abrupt conclusion of the show left the characters still on the island, uncertain of their futures.

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