Yesterday & Today
Everybody's Little Buddy
Bob Denver's portrayal of a bumbling first mate on Gilligan's Island helped make the TV sitcom a pop culture icon. Decades after the show aired, Denver was diagnosed with an uncommon variety of throat cancer.
By Jocelyn Selim
Photo © 2005 CBS Worldwide Inc. / Getty Images
On March 17, 2004, Bob Denver, along with other surviving cast members of the 1960s television comedy Gilligan’s Island, gathered at the Hollywood Palladium, a concert hall on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard. They were there to accept the second annual TV Land Award in the Pop Culture category, given for crossing the line from television series to pop culture phenomenon.
The award was well-deserved. Forty years after the first episode aired in 1964, the show had achieved almost mythical status. Though original episodes of Gilligan’s Island aired for only three seasons, those 98 episodes have been in reruns for decades. Broadcast in more than 70 countries and dubbed into at least 10 languages, the show has been a staple of TV viewing for generations of children. In some markets, Gilligan’s Island was broadcast as many as five times a day, making it, by some estimates, one of the most widely syndicated shows ever. Scholarly treatises have been written about the program, and the Ginger or Mary Ann debate has been a topic of pub disputes for decades. The show has proved so enduring that, in 1992, 30,000 fans petitioned the governor of Hawaii to rename Maui “Gilligan’s Island.”
A Childlike Clown
The show’s popularity, especially among children, is in no small part due to Bob Denver’s portrayal of Gilligan, dubbed “Little Buddy” by the Skipper, a fellow castaway played by Alan Hale Jr. Gilligan was the well-meaning but bumbling first mate who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every time the castaways were close to escaping from the island. In her book, Gilligan’s Dreams: The Other Side of the Island, Denver’s wife Dreama, now 63, describes how the actor studied his then-3-year-old son Patrick to capture the wonder and curiosity of a child in the character of Gilligan. “He wanted kids the world over to identify with Gilligan, seeing that they could mess up and still have everything come out all right in the end,” she writes.
By the time Gilligan’s Island first hit the airways in September 1964, Denver, 29, had already achieved fame on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a TV sitcom that aired from 1959 to 1963, playing the beatnik, bongo-playing best friend Maynard G. Krebs. Like Gilligan, the Maynard character owes as much to Denver as to the show’s writers. “During the first year of playing Maynard, I was allowed to make up my own character,” Denver wrote in his autobiography, Gilligan, Maynard, and Me. “He was mine to create. Sounds a bit like Dr. Frankenstein, but it’s true.” Like Denver, Maynard was heavily into jazz and a bit of an iconoclast. The actor would take long breaks to go fishing in Maine or explore Tahiti and Bora Bora.
Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1935, Denver finished high school in Los Angeles after his family moved there. He attended college locally at Loyola Marymount University, where he first got into acting doing college productions. After briefly flirting with the idea of attending law school, Denver decided to try professional acting. He supported himself with various jobs, including teaching elementary school and working at a post office, while he looked for roles. In 1958, the 23-year-old landed the role of Maynard G. Krebs after his sister Helen, who worked at 20th
Century Fox, slipped his name in for a screen test.
Denver spent the next 11 years in Hollywood, including four years on the set of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and three on Gilligan’s Island. After a few years of working on two short-lived TV series, The Good Guys and Dusty’s Trail, Denver left television to go on the traveling dinner-theater circuit.
By 1972, Denver had married three times and fathered a son, Patrick, and two daughters, Megan and Emily. While performing in a dinner-theater production in 1977, he met Dreama, who would become his fourth wife. “By the time I met him, he had three ex-wives and three great kids and his career had seen a lot of ups and downs,” Dreama writes in her book. “He [felt] pigeon-holed. There’s no one else that looks like him, and people always saw him as Gilligan.”
But there were benefits to being so heavily typecast: Denver’s familiar face earned much-needed income.
“People assume that if they’ve seen you on TV for decades, you must be rich,” says Dreama. “But back in those days, actors didn’t know about residuals” (fees paid to actors and other creative staff when a program is rebroadcast). Denver’s weekly salary on Gilligan’s Island never exceeded $1,500, and the actors were paid off completely after all the episodes ran twice in the 1960s.
“We lived hand-to-mouth for a lot of our marriage,” says Dreama. Finances were especially rough after their son, Colin, who has severe autism and a seizure disorder, was born in 1984. Soon after, the couple moved to Bluefield, W. Va., about 10 miles from Princeton, where Dreama grew up. They devoted themselves full-time to caring for their son.
“When money was tight, Bob would go do personal appearances and that would give us enough to tide us over,” says Dreama. No matter how many years passed, people always wanted to see Gilligan.
A Rare, Aggressive Cancer
The March 2004 TV Land Awards would be Denver’s last public appearance. By November, both Denver and Dreama noticed that he was getting hoarse, but chalked it up to laryngitis. By March 2005, he had lost 20 pounds. Finally Denver realized it was time to find out what was wrong. He was referred by his family doctor to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who performed an endoscopy, threading a thin camera through his nose to look at his throat. After seeing an unusual growth around the voice box, the doctor sent Denver for an MRI to get a detailed view of the inside of his throat.
The scan results weren’t good news. Denver, 70, had stage IV hypopharyngeal cancer, a cancer in the lowermost part of the throat that connects to the esophagus and the windpipe. A large tumor had formed in Denver’s pyriform sinuses—small recesses on either side of the larynx—and had spread until it had invaded the cartilage of the larynx, the base of the tongue, the neck muscles, the thyroid gland and the submandibular lymph nodes along the base of the lower jaw.