Today, more than 50 years later, I'm not sure why I sat on my notes for so long before writing the story. I met Bob Denver in the late spring of 1964. A publicist had arranged for an interview at a Los Angeles restaurant during my one visit to California.
Denver arrived a few minutes late, bringing with him his first wife, Maggie Ryan. They had two small children, left at home in the care of a babysitter. Denver's first television series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," had gone off the air a year earlier, and while he'd done a few guest shots since then, Denver's financial situation was precarious; he and his wife looked and acted as though they were a homeless couple who'd been plucked off the streets to enjoy a free meal. He was eager to start work on a new series, "Gilligan's Island."
From a description of the program, I figured it would be canceled early in its first season, but, then, I never was good at predicting the fates of television shows.
Perhaps that's why I didn't write my Bob Denver story in timely fashion, waiting until a follow-up phone interview was scheduled about 14 months later. Denver, who hadn't been paid much when he played Maynard G. Krebs on "Dobie Gillis," was in much better shape as the title character in a hit series. He didn't realize it at the time, but he'd be Gilligan for the rest of his life.
Something I didn't realize when I met him at that restaurant was that Bob Denver wasn't the first person offered the role of Gilligan. Jerry Van Dyke, whose guest spot in a two-parter on his brother's series, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," in 1962, made him an overnight sensation, turned down the part in the Sherwood Schwartz series. Van Dyke may have thought he was headed for a movie career in supporting roles, because, in 1963, he appeared in three films — "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," "Palm Springs Weekend" and "McClintock!"
But the movie offered dried up, and in 1965 Van Dyke starred in the short-lived — and much-ridiculed — situation comedy, "My Mother, the Car." He would have been much further ahead as Gilligan, whose first name, Willie, was never mentioned during the program's run.
Return with me to 1965 when Bob Denver was about to begin his second season with the other castaways:
Akron Beacon Journal, August 15, 1965
It happened about two years ago.— I was lying on my couch, half-asleep, watching “The Steve Allen Show,” when what to my bloodshot eyes should appear by a 17-year-old boy named Huntz Hall Jr.
Huntz Hall Jr.!!
I was so rattled I couldn’t get to sleep for hours. I’d have been less astonished if he said he was Adolf Hitler’s kid.
Granted, my excitement probably wasn’t shared by anyone. Many of your might not even recognize the name. Huntz who?
People, where have you been?
BELOVED HUNTZ was “Satch” in all those Dead End Kids and Bowery Boys movies. He was the Complete Boob — totally lacking in intelligence and sensitivity, willing to carry out whatever orders were given him by his gang’s leader, Terrence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney (Leo Gorcey, whose character in pre-Bowery Boys films was called “Spike” or “Spit”).
As much as I may deny it today when a Bowery Boys film is mentioned, there was a time — I admit it — I thought Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey were the funniest men in the world.
But never did I imagine there really was a Huntz Hall. No self-respecting man could allow himself to be paraded in movie after movie as such an idiot as Horace Debussy “Satch” Jones.
However, that evening, while watching “The Steve Allen Show,” I realized there is a Huntz Hall, and he has honest-to-Rodney Harrington feelings about girls, and he was married . . . and fathered a baby, for Pete’s sake.
I HAD ANOTHER astonishing experience when I met Bob Denver, the fellow who has replaced Huntz Hall as America’s favorite idiot. In person, Denver is friendly, bright, but soft-spoken. On the small screen he's created two free-wheeling dimwits — beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and Gilligan on “Gilligan’s Island.”
So I asked Denver how he felt about carrying on in the great Huntz Hall tradition. It was a smart alecky, condescending question — especially the way I asked it — but Denver said he is used to it, He said he feels just fine about the role he plays, and then he put me in my place.
“The comedy is broad,” he admitted, “and appeals mostly to little kids, but little kids are people, aren’t they?”
Undeterred, I asked him if he became a professional boob by design or by accident?
“It just sort of happened,” he replied. “After college, I took a job teaching at a parochial grammar school in Los Angeles, but I was never interested in teaching. I wanted to act, so I became active in amateur groups. During my second year of teaching, I got so wrapped up in acting that my classes became a big farce.”
LUCKILY for both Denver and the parochial grammar school, he received his first big break during that second year when he was offered the role of Maynard G. Krebs.
And that’s how he became the Complete Boob.
“Max Shulman,, who wrote ‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,’ apparently saw Krebs as the typical teenager. A lot of kids who liked me on the show probably would have changed their minds if they knew what I represented.”
“Dobie Gillis” remained on the CBS schedule for four seasons, and when it was canceled, Denver found he had no place to go. By this time he and Maynard G. Krebs were considered one and the same. For 18 months there was no demand for a Krebs-like character.
DENVER WAS saved — in the nick of time — when producer Sherwood Schwartz offered the actor the title role in his show, “Gilligan’s Island.”
His real-life situation had become so bad that Denver was borrowing money to feed his wife and three children.
“Here I was, the star of a new television show, and I was practically starving.”
His hunger was prolonged by a series of delays that kept the show from filming until August, which put more pressure on the cast and crew because the series was due to go on the air in September. Because of the late start, everyone on the show worked longer hours than usual.
“We didn’t get a rest until the first season was finished — and that was on April 15, which was nice because I had a couple of hours to work on my income tax.”
DENVER'S START on “Gilligan’s Island” was rough, but his first weeks of “Dobie Gillis” were rougher.
He had completed four “Dobie Gillis” episodes when he received his “GREETINGS” from the draft board.
“I still don’t know what happened because I had a deferment because of my family,” he said, “but all of a sudden I was 1-A and ordered to report. So I reported for basic training only to learn my orders had been rescinded and I was a civilian again.
“When I returned to work, I learned they had hired another actor to take my place. Luckily I got my job back. I wonder what happened to that other guy?”
[NOTE: Denver’s draft notice was covered in the program, which had Krebs going off to join the Army, then return an episode later. In the meantime, a new character played by Michael J. Pollard joined the series, then soon disappeared.]
THE MOST UPSETTING thing in Denver’s life may have been something that never actually happened. During his third year on “Dobie Gillis,” a rumor swept the country that Bob Denver had been electrocuted in his bathtub.
“I don’t know why people spread things like that,” he said. “People seem to get such pleasure out of disasters — or from anticipating disasters . . . like all those predictions about The Beatles having a plane crash.”
This season Gilligan and the rest of the island castaways — Alan Hale Jr., Jim Backus, Natalie Schaffer, and company — will do their frolicking in color; everyone at CBS is certain the show will maintain its very high ratings.
BEFORE THEY resumed filming, Denver and Hale took advantage of their popularity to make personal appearances at rodeos and state fairs.
“They pay good money,” Denver told me, “and it’s also a good way to promote the show — and myself.”
Obviously, Denver is taking no chances on winding up in near poverty the next time he finds himself without a TV show.
He might also have in mind the risk taken by someone who makes a career of playing Huntz Hall-type roles, especially after what happened to Hall.
What happened to Hall?
No one seem to know.
That’s more reason Denver has to be careful.
"Gilligan's Island" ran only three seasons on CBS, but was shown forever in syndicated reruns. It also spawned three TV movies and a cartoon series, "The New Adventures of Gilligan." And, in 1992, the pilot film for "Gilligan's Island," which featured three actors who did not appear in the series, was finally shown. Additionally, Denver showed up as the Gilligan character a few times in other prime time shows, and was Maynard G. Krebs in two television programs that follow-up on the "Dobie Gillis" series.
Denver tried to expand his career, appearing in a few movies ("Who's Minding the Mint?", "The Sweet Ride," and "Back to the Beach," among them) and starred on three unsuccessful television series:
• "The Good Guys," with Herb Edelman, was about two friends who owned a diner; it lasted 42 episodes from 1968-70.
• "Dusty's Trail," with Forrest Tucker, was a comedy Western about a couple of guys who strayed from the rest of the wagon train, and had to fend for themselves. This one lasted 26 episodes during the 1973-74 season. Also featured were Jeannine Riley and Lori Saunders, who'd co-starred for awhile on "Petticoat Junction" about 10 years earlier.
* "Far Out Space Nuts" co-starred Chuck McCann. He and Denver were maintenance workers accidentally launched into space. This one was yanked after 12 episodes in 1975.
Highlight of his career may have been his 1970 stint on Broadway when he replaced Woody Allen in "Play It Again, Sam."
Denver was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1935, but grew up in Brownwood, Texas, before moving to Los Angeles, where he graduated from Loyola University. The elementary school where he taught briefly was Corpus Christi School in Pacific Palisades.
He and his first wife divorced in 1966, and he subsequently married three more times — to Jean Webber (1967-70), Carole Abrahams (1972-75), and Dreama Perry (1979-until his death in 2005). He had four children — two by Maggie Ryan, one each by Carole Abrahams and Dreama Perry.
Eventually, he moved to Princeton, West Virginia, where he and his fourth wife had a radio program. In 2005, Denver had a double whammy — he survived the first (quadruple bypass surgery), but succumbed to the cancer that was discovered afterward. He passed away at Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on September 2.