Debunking a GILLIGAN’S ISLAND Myth

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week’s Sitcom Tuesday covers The Beverly Hillbillies’ 1966-’67 season, which coincided with the final year of fellow CBS comedy Gilligan’s Island. As many of you know, Gilligan’s Island was set for renewal in early 1967 but got pulled from CBS’ fall schedule at the last minute to make room for Gunsmoke. Depending on who tells the story, it was either Bill Paley or his wife Babe who insisted that the long-running western be given a second chance, but either way, this decision resulted in the castaways ending up lost at sea for 11 more years. Now, because I might not get another chance to do this, I want to take today’s post to debunk a myth circulating online about the series and one of its stars.

About 25 years ago, the popular Gilligan’s Island Fan Club claimed to have found a script for the final aired entry, “Gilligan, The Goddess,” that also included a list of possible stories/outlines for the assumed fourth season — the most notable of which proposed that Tina Louise’s Ginger would have been rescued in the show’s 100th episode and replaced by two secretaries named Miss Krissy and Miss Sally. Since then, a lot of fans have regarded this as gospel — had the series gone forward, Ginger would have left and been succeeded by new characters. But this has always been a dubious source; “Gilligan, The Goddess” was written as the third season’s second episode (out of 30), so even though it was held for last, we’d be unlikely to find ideas for the fourth season in its script. What is the truth? Let’s take a look at the public record.

For starters, given Louise’s complicated relationship with the role for which she is best known — she doesn’t like talking about Gilligan’s Island and didn’t return for any of the reunion shows or movies (after making an exorbitant financial ultimatum she knew would be rejected) — we’ve long had reason to believe that the actress would have jumped at any chance to get off that darn island. And, indeed, Louise, who came from Broadway’s Fade Out, Fade In and whose casting by network prexy Jim Aubrey had tongues wagging, did try to be released from her contract during the first season, when her unhappiness was so palpable that she gave an infamous interview to TV Guide in May 1965, offering a scathing quote that began with “I was ashamed when I saw the first show,” and peaked with “I wouldn’t watch it if I wasn’t on it.”

Fortunately, CBS was able to pacify its “movie star,” likely by promising her future dramatic opportunities, and she settled down, never again badmouthing the hit series publicly during its initial run. She also settled down literally, marrying talk show host Les Crane in early 1966 and making plans to start a family. In fact, Louise even told reporters she was hoping to get pregnant in the summer of 1967, which meant she’d have to “go for a lot of close-ups” on Gilligan’s Island to conceal her baby bump. This idea was seemingly put on hold (she didn’t give birth to her daughter until 1970), but it indicates an intention to stay with the show, especially because every annual pickup provided an increase in salary that the press gossiped, in March 1967, would put her “in good shape…,” boosting her financial incentive at a time when she’d need it. Les Crane’s series, by the way, had been dropped in 1965 and he soon after filed for bankruptcy. So, in 1967, it would have been foolish for that household to pass on a good check.

If all this doesn’t assure us that Louise was unlikely to leave, then take a look at how separate newspapers described her reaction when Gilligan’s Island was axed — at a party in March she was apparently “unnerved” about the surprise decision, while the following month she was caught commiserating with It’s About Time’s Frank Aletter over their shows’ recent cancellations, complaining “that it didn’t make sense… seeing that [Gilligan’s] keeps showing up very high on the ratings.” (To be truthful, it had fallen out of the Top 40, failed to win its time slot against The Monkees, and had just barely made the 30-share average that was then a requirement for renewal on CBS.) Does it sound like this unnerved complainer was expecting her gig to end? No. Although, as expected, she moved from being shocked to “elated” pretty quickly, saying in May she was “ready to go on to something else” because she had been “so tied down.” This reveals that Louise was only on the show because she was contractually bound, not because she loved it (duh), yet her words prove the point: she couldn’t go anywhere before the cancellation.

Until then, Louise had resigned herself to getting what she could from this opportunity, and she didn’t truly resent the series that was feeding her bank account and giving her the visibility she admittedly sought until it went into heavy syndication and she was unable to shake the Ginger Grant persona. Because of her attitude about the show since then, and, to be fair, the cast and crew’s memories of her difficulty on the set, we’ve been led to believe that she was a prima donna who didn’t want to be trapped on Gilligan’s Island. That’s probably true. But it’s irrelevant, for in 1967, all signs point to her planning to remain trapped, and no reliable source — not even the late Sherwood Schwartz, the ultimate authority — has ever corroborated the idea that she would have, or even could have, left. So, with no actual evidence supporting the club’s findings, and press at the time suggesting the opposite, let us perish the presumption that Louise would have departed Gilligan’s Island had it come back for a fourth season. It is highly improbable. (That’s not to say all the outlines are fake — some allegedly have Schwartz’s signature on them and are dated from summer 1966, when “Gilligan, The Goddess” was shot — so it’s possible that an exit for Ginger was drafted as a figurative insurance policy. But, again, there’s nothing in the public record to indicate that it was set to be produced or that Louise was leaving.)

Ultimately, Ginger Grant was one of the funniest and best defined characters on Gilligan’s Island due to Louise’s nuanced portrayal — she turned what could have been merely a vamping shallow diva into a comic star whose naive self-obsession was countered with career-based wit and playful femininity. No one else who took on Ginger made her so multi-dimensional, and that’s a testament to Louise’s talent. I wish I was able to believe that she was thrilled with the show and her work on it, but millions of us are, and I’m glad she was one of the seven stranded castaways. Hopefully she knows what joy she, and the rest of this terrific ensemble, inspired.


11/09/20 UPDATE: I wrote to Tina Louise herself, asking for confirmation regarding her status with the show heading into a possible fourth season. She graciously answered my question with, “No, I wasn’t planning to leave. I was looking forward to getting back to doing work that was more in line with my studies at the Actors Studio. [But] I would have continued.” There you have it, folks — she wasn’t planning to leave. 



Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical rarity!