Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale. But it won’t be a cheerful one.
"Gilligan’s Island" only ran for three seasons, but it’s played in perpetuity on reruns. Most everyone can name the cast members, and you’ve probably been humming the theme song since you read the title of this piece. It also spawned a franchise, including three TV movies and two cartoons — even if they’ve been largely forgotten. In other words, it’s one of the most beloved television shows of all time.
Of course, despite what you see on-screen, it wasn’t all smiles and sunshine for the actors. Plenty of the stars had their fair share of upsetting backstories, and some found themselves in sad situations after the show went off the air. The castaways have even faced drama surrounding paychecks, epic world events, and COVID-19. Here are some tragic details about one of the most upbeat and famous shows in TV history.
Alan Hale had to hitchhike to his Gilligan’s Island audition
Before simply going by Alan Hale, the man who’d play the Skipper went by Alan Hale Jr. professionally. His father, Alan Sr., was one of the most prominent character actors in Hollywood for decades. This cast a long shadow, one he only escaped after landing "Gilligan’s Island." Tragically, he almost missed his audition … but not before giving one of the greatest audition stories in Hollywood history.
Lloyd Schwartz, producer of the reunion movies and the son of "Gilligan’s Island" creator Sherwood Schwartz, recalled to Closer Weekly that his father was having a hard time casting the Skipper. Right when things were getting "down to the wire," Sherwood saw Hale at a restaurant and — although they never interacted — knew he had his man. The next day, he instructed his casting director to deliver Hale, only to find out that the actor had flown to Utah to shoot "Bullet for a Badman" with Audie Murphy.
Hale got the call about the audition, but it wasn’t easy getting out of St. George, Utah, on short notice. "It was kind of a difficulty," he said during a 1988 "Gilligan’s Island" reunion on "The Late Show." "How was I going to get there? There were no planes out of there. There were no rent-a-cars or anything." His solution? Hitchhike. "I went out on the highway with my thumb. And I hitchhiked out of St. George. Got down to Las Vegas, flew from Las Vegas into CBS." Some accounts include him riding a horse part of the way. Suffice to say, he nailed the audition and managed to get back to St. George the next day.
Russell Johnson went to a school for orphans
Russell Johnson would eventually become known to fans around the world as the Professor. But before he found success on TV, his childhood was incredibly rocky.
According to The Washington Post, Johnson was the oldest of seven children (the LA Times claims six, but either way, there were a lot of them), and the future TV star came from a poor family in Ashley, Pennsylvania. When he was around 8 years old, Johnson’s father died — making the financial situation much more dire. As a result, Johnson and one of his brothers were sent to Girard College, a boarding school for poor orphan boys in Philadelphia. Sadly, he stayed there from ages 9 through 18.
None of the details available from this point in his life paint a pretty picture. The LA Times reports that he acted in one production, but he seldom watched movies and only saw a solitary stage play before his graduation. Even so, he wasn’t entirely alone — a member of Johnson’s extended family told a "Gilligan’s Island" fan club that the actor’s mother would hitch a ride to Girard in order to visit her sons.
Russell Johnson was wounded during World War II
Professor actor Russell Johnson joined the United States Army Air Force after graduating high school. And during his time in the military, he served as a bombardier during World War II, flying missions over the Pacific Theater. Certain details of his service record are contradictory, with various sources saying he flew either a B-24 or a B-25. One thing is crystal clear, however — it was here where the real Professor ever-so-briefly became a real-life castaway … and not the fun kind.
During a bombing mission over the Philippines, Johnson’s plane was shot down, and his plane crashed by the island of Mindanao. Johnson broke both of his ankles in the crash, an injury that earned him a Purple Heart. Some sources indicate that several other planes were shot down during this bombing run and that at least one of his fellow pilots died in the process.
The castaways were typecast for life
Every actor wants to be recognized for a role, but that comes with a downside — the risk of typecasting. If a performance becomes a little too iconic, it can take an actor years to shake the association — if they can shake it at all — and find new work. Unfortunately, this happened to the cast of "Gilligan’s Island."
Russell Johnson often played cunning villains before "Gilligan," and starring as the straight-laced, bookish Professor ruined his chance of going back to that. During a 1993 interview on CNN (via the LA Times), he stated that, "After ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ I couldn’t get a job playing heavies, let alone getting a job." Dawn Wells’ obituary in The Washington Post made similar observations, noting that she spent much of her post-"Gilligan" career on stage to find challenging roles. Even so, the show’s legacy still followed her. When she attempted to do a production of "The Vagina Monologues," producers shot her down because they still thought of her as Mary Ann.
Tina Louise in particular had a complicated relationship with the show. There have long been rumors she resented the show, partially driven by the fact that she never returned for the reunion movies. She shot down those rumors in 2020, telling the New York Post, "I loved doing my part, especially after they really started writing for my character," though she does admit she almost quit.
There were no residuals for the actors
It’s easy to assume that the "Gilligan’s Island" cast lived comfortably on residuals for the rest of their lives, given that the show has been in continuous syndication since it went off the air. This assumption, however, is too generous given television standards of the time. Residuals in this era were much more limited, often constricted to reruns of just the first five episodes or so. As such, none of the cast got rich off the show.
Mary Ann actress Dawn Wells estimated to Forbes that she only got paid $750 a week, also acknowledging that she was "low on the totem pole" and that other cast members like Jim Backus and Tina Louise got more. Russell Johnson’s obituary in The Washington Post said that he resented being left out of the syndication profits. Louise also confirmed that she never got residuals, but she told the Wall Street Journal that, "Money’s never been my God."
Most accounts indicate that the only person who got any money off syndication was creator Sherwood Schwartz. Wells claimed in her Forbes interview that Schwartz made $90 million on reruns, a number Schwartz’s daughter Hope Juber told MarketWatch was "ridiculous and surprising." Juber went on to say that her family was "certainly comfortable," but she also claimed her father’s deal with the studio wasn’t for that kind of money.
Dawn Wells needed a GoFundMe
The lack of "Gilligan’s Island" residuals was especially harmful to the actors long term. While modern sitcom actors will often earn millions in syndication for the rest of their lives, the "Gilligan’s Island" cast got most of their money from further acting gigs and appearances on the nostalgia circuit. Acting is notoriously unsteady work, especially for the typecast. Few felt this harder than Dawn Wells, who received assistance via crowdfunding after an injury.
The GoFundMe was set up in the fall of 2018 by her friend, Dugg Kirkpatrick, who stated that, "After 2008, like many of us, Dawn suffered through the banking crash and lost everything, including her life savings, in addition to a life-threatening surgery which came close to killing her." She also broke her knee in 2018. The resulting debt denied her a chance to move into a specialty assisted living facility, and the crowdfunding goal was $180,000 to help alleviate medical expenses and IRS penalties — a goal it ultimately surpassed. Kirkpatrick told People that Wells didn’t know he was setting it up and was embarrassed at first, but she was "so flattered that her fans have come to her rescue — shocked and amazed, actually."
The draft almost put a dent in Bob Denver’s career
Before donning his iconic bucket hat, Bob Denver starred as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." He played Maynard for significantly more episodes than he did Gilligan, even if "Dobie Gillis" didn’t have the lasting popularity of "Gilligan’s Island."
But a mere four episodes into production, Denver got a draft notice from the US Army. This was actually written into the show, with Maynard getting drafted and receiving an emotional on-screen farewell. His role was filled by Jerome Krebs (Michael J. Pollard), Maynard’s similar beatnik cousin.
Ready to leave behind what looked like rare steady work on television, Denver reported to the Army for his physical. But due to an old neck injury, he was classified 4F — unfit for service. As he recalled during an interview in 1998, Denver returned to set, thrilled that he could work on the show again — only to find out that everyone thought he was joking. It took several hours before writer Max Shulman realized Denver was serious, but he told the actor to go home and wait for a call since they had Pollard signed already.
Ultimately, this story has a happy ending for all involved. Denver got his role back, and Pollard got paid off for 30 episodes despite only ever appearing in two.
Bob Denver faced many death hoaxes
Death hoaxes are a common part of being famous, as Bob Denver learned early. Just a year into playing Maynard G. Krebs on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," a rumor spread that Denver died in 1960. This rumor became so pervasive that Denver would occasionally run into fans who’d mourn his own death after pointing out he looked like Maynard. "At first it was spooky," Denver told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1961. "Then it seemed like a gag. When it kept up, it made me somewhat angry. Now, well, I’m still angry. I know it’s no gag. And it isn’t spooky. It’s frightening."
Death rumors returned after Denver took a break from acting post-"Dobie," so much so that a TV column, The Manhattan Mercury (via MeTV), called them "one of the most persistent rumors our mailbag has ever had."
Somehow, against the laws of God and man, the death hoaxes continued years after Denver died in 2005. Snopes notes that in 2016 and 2017, news of Denver’s death spread across social media — likely from people sharing old articles about his death without checking the publishing dates.
Jim Backus suffered from a serious illness
Jim Backus was the only "Gilligan’s Island" cast member to avoid typecasting, partially because he was already a well-established actor before playing Thurston Howell III. (The man even had a pivotal part in "Rebel Without a Cause.") He also spent the latter years of his life suffering from at least one debilitating disease.
Backus slowed down live-action acting by the 1980s, mostly sticking to voice roles. And sadly, most accounts indicate he had Parkinson’s disease. His 1984 autobiography "Backus Strikes Back" dealt with, in part, his diagnosis. However, in a UPI piece promoting the book, he instead claimed that he had extreme hypochondria and anxiety brought on in part by overworking.
It’s unknown whether he was incorrect when speaking with UPI, but enough credible sources indicate that he genuinely had Parkinson’s. Both The New York Times and the AP explicitly stated in their obituaries that Backus suffered from the degenerative disorder. So while there’s a bit of debate about what Backus was going through, it’s obvious that he was clearly suffering.
Dawn Wells died of COVID-19
Almost the entire cast of "Gilligan’s Island" is dead. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that it’s been over a half century since the show aired, but it’s sad nonetheless. The most recent cast death was especially tragic: Dawn Wells died on December 30, 2020, of COVID-19. This leaves Tina Louise as the last surviving original cast member.
On Christmas Eve in 2020, Wells posted a prerecorded holiday greeting to her Facebook page. She also wrote, "I know I will have a new appreciation in a simple gathering of college friends at a coffee shop a few months from now. Please find joy amidst the pandemic and be cognizant of our overwhelmed first responders. Lets not let our actions make a bigger burden for them. I am thankful and in awe of the dedication of our health care professionals." Six days later, she was dead. It’s unknown how ill she was at the time of her message, but her manager later said that she "enjoyed the distraction of her Facebook family from her own current situation."
JFK’s assassination loomed large over the Gilligan’s Island pilot
The pilot of "Gilligan’s Island" was shot in Hawaii in November 1963. On Friday, November 22, they were on their second-to-last day of on-location shooting when news trickled in via radio: President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Sherwood Schwartz recalled the day in his book "Inside Gilligan’s Island" with great clarity and described the many difficulties it caused.
Nobody believed the news when it first broke, but as reports started to trickle through, people realized that this was no rumor. The cast and crew listened to reports on the president’s condition between takes before eventually hearing that Lyndon Johnson was getting sworn in. "I still don’t know how we were able to complete the filming that day," wrote Schwartz. "Not that there was anything we could do about this tragic event. It simply gives you an extra measure of helplessness when you’re 5,000 miles away."
Then, their planned last day of filming got scrapped when they found Honolulu Harbor would be closed for two days for a period of mourning. Their permission to film was transferred until Monday, but everyone was scheduled to head home that weekend. This necessitated CBS shelling out extra money to extend everyone’s stay … during which everyone saw Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV in their hotels.
They finally got the sequence they wanted on November 26th — the Minnow leaving the harbor. And as the story goes, a flag in the harbor can be seen flying at half-mast during the first season’s opening credits as a tribute to JFK.