Gilligan's Island, True Hollywood Story

Backstage history more humorous than the show. A two-hour of the renowned '60s sitcom.


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By Mark Lorando (NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE)

Boomer nostalgia knows no shame. "The Brady Bunch" is no longer just an old TV show, it's a religion. Memories of "The Partridge Family" are so fond that they have spawned dueling made-for-TV movies: Danny Bonaduce's on ABC, David Cassidy's on NBC.

The hottest role in Hollywood? A feature film version of "Charlie's Angels." "CHiPs" resurfaced last year as a movie-of-the-week, and "The Love Boat" set sail again as a UPN series every bit as dopey as the ABC original.

And yet, one '60s sitcom was so scintillatingly insipid that no one has mustered the courage to celebrate it. "Gilliganís Island," surely the very best bad television series ever made, remains shipwrecked in an ocean of schlock TV tributes, the castaways having been castaway by the same viewers who wasted years of after-school rerun-watching wishing for their rescue.

On Sunday night, E! Entertainment Television will try to give (sing along at home) Gilligan, the Skipper too, the Millionaire and his wife, the Movie Star, the Professor and Mary Ann their due. "Gilligan's Island: "The E!True Hollywood Story" takes viewers on a two-hour tour of a half-hour comedy that lasted three seasons and, for better or (mostly) worse, defined the careers of its seven co-stars.

One of them - Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann - welcomed the opportunity to take part in a serious discussion of a series that everybody loves to mock.

"We've been made fun of for years," Wells said from Tampa, Fla., she was making one of her motivational speaking appearances. Nobody's ever really been through the whole history."

It is a backstage history far more humorous than the show ever was - well, except for that one episode when the cosmonaut spaceship crashed in the lagoon..."

"I couldn't stand it," says former CBS programmer Michael Dann who tells E! that the network put it on the air because it didn't have anything else ready to go for the fall. The plan was to keep the time slot warm for 13 weeks, then plug in a real show.

When its ratings started high and got better, eventually landing the show in the Nielsen top 20, the network was stuck with it. But that didn't mean network executives had to like it.

"I never knew anyone in the department who liked it," Dann says. "I never knew anybody in the company that liked it."

Not even all the actors liked it. "I figured it would last a year," said Tina Louise, who replaced the original Ginger after the pilot. Unfortunately for Louise, it lasted three seasons, just long enough to dash any aspirations she had of becoming a "serious" movie actress.

Louise and Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, refused to be interviewed by E!, which makes do with canned interviews from other sources. Too bad for them. "True Hollywood Story" tends to be nicer to the people who agree to talk to them; or maybe itís just a coincidence that the juiciest backstage stories are about no-shows Denver and Louise battling on the set.

Says creator Sherwood Schwartz of Louise. "She came storming into my office very angry. She said, I thought this was a show about a major movie star with six other people! And I said, Well, Tina, didn't it give you a hint when you saw that the title of the show was 'Gilliganís Island'? It wasn't ĎGingerís Island.í"

Their respective widows speak for the late Alan Hale Jr. (Skipper) and Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III), and they speak warmly of the show and its success. Hale, we're told, wore that skipperís cap "everywhere," Russell Johnson speaks with Professor-like seriousness of the show bringing his career as a movie villain to a dead stop, and Wells is Mary Ann-perky at all times, even when relating Schwartzís admonition to her after the second season to "take five pounds off!"

But the special is most fun when glimpsing castaways that might have been: a photo of Raquel Welch at her Mary Ann audition (an interview with Welch would have been better); a sound bite from Jerry Van Dyke second-guessing his decision to pass up an offer to play Gilligan. He did "My Mother the Car" instead.

Dabney Colem isn't interviewed, but we're going to assume that he doesn't regret failing to the role of the Professor.

Two hours is too long for this ticular trivial pursuit; itís pointed out at least a dozen times by a dozen people that the critics hated it and viewers loved it. The backstage footage is dark and fuzzy; Wells says she and Johnson are working on their own backstage history on "Gilligan's Island," and we suspect she saved the good out takes for herself.

All in all, itís a pretty straight forward piece of TV history, one that certainly warrants the attention.