Denver made a whole career out of playing Gilligan, not just in the original sitcom, which ran for three seasons from 1964-1967, but made-for-TV movie sequels, TV spinoffs, guest appearances, animated series (where he provided his voice), musicals and video games based on the series, documentaries and docudramas and even a reality show, “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” a Survivor-like competition in which contestants played character types from the original — a goofball like Gilligan, a sea captain, a movie star, a millionaire’s wife, and so forth.
Denver guest-starred on numerous shows after the series ended, but could never shed the image of the affable, but klutzy and simple-minded Gilligan, who always managed to mess things up with his bumbling ways. So he basically went with the flow and pretty much played Gilligan throughout his career. Even a previous character from the 1959 sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” Denver played goofy, but affable beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, essentially Gilligan with a goatee and beret.
Denver played Gilligan, or as The Skipper used to call him, “Little Buddy,” on nine different series: the original “Gilligan’s Island (1964), “The New Adventures of Gilligan” (1974), “The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island” (1979), “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” (1981), “Gilligan’s Planet” (1982), “The New Gidget” (1986), “ALF” (1986), “Baywatch” (1989) and “Meego” (1997).
One of the most-asked questions about the original series, which became popular with a new generation after running for years in syndication, is “Did the castaways ever escape from Gilligan’s Island?” The answer is yes and no.
The hapless castaways never escaped in the original series, but did 11 years later in the 1978 made-for-TV movie, “Rescue From Gilligan’s Island,” in which the seven return to the mainland after lashing their huts together to escape an oncoming tsunami. They are rescued after Gilligan sets the huts on fire trying to cook food (that crazy Gilligan!) and a U.S. Navy helicopter sees the smoke.
The castaways make it back home, but everything has changed in their absence and they can’t quite adjust to life in civilization. On a reunion cruise on the S.S. Minnow II (the replacement for the original boat that they shipwrecked on), they end up marooned on the island once again, not that they mind it this time.
The plot also involves a Russian spy satellite that crashed on the island containing a disc with top-secret information that Gilligan had found on the island and carried with him as a good-luck charm. Two Russian spies, Dmitri and Ivan, of course, are after the disc, which leads to the usual slapstick and shenanigans (at one point castaway Mary Ann is set to marry Dmitri until The Skipper and Gilligan ride in on a tractor to sweep her away and save the day).
It’s all pretty silly and inconsequential, but fans embraced it, happy to see the seven reunited again (except for Tina Louise, who played Ginger in the original, declined to appear in the film because of a dispute with the studio. She was replaced by a younger actress, Judith Baldwin) and up to their same comedic hijinks.
Directed by Leslie H. Martinson, a journeyman television director who directed episodes ranging from “Maverick,” “Ironside” and “Mission Impossible” to “The Brady Bunch,” “Mannix” and “Wonder Woman,” “Rescue From Gilligan’s Island” was virtually critic-proof. The plot, such as it is, is beside the point as long as the characters were being the characters fans knew and loved. The proof is in the pudding: these characters were trotted out numerous times over the years since the original series aired. The series even grew in popularity in the 70s and 80s when it seemed to be everywhere in syndication, especially in the late afternoon, when kids were home from school.
Gilligan — his full name was never revealed and no one knows whether it’s a first name or a last name — has become a true American TV icon. And in real life, Denver was quite the opposite from the bumbling Gilligan. He was talented, shy, quiet and introverted, and well read.
When asked about the silliness of “Gilligan’s Island” he would just say, “It’s silly, yes, but children laugh and adults can if they want to. It’s aimed at the vast everybody.”
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