Gilligan’s Dreams

Bob Denver created the TV archetype of the inept but lovable slacker.

Amid all the harrowing real-life rescues of the past week, I hope it isn’t too offensive to take a moment to remember the loss of one fictional castaway: the actor Bob Denver, who played the eponymous first mate on Gilligan’s Island from 1964 to 1967. After surviving quadruple bypass surgery earlier this year, Denver, 70, died of complications from cancer treatment on Friday. He’s survived by his third wife, Dreama Denver (with whom he hosted a syndicated radio show called Weekend With Denver and Denver) and four children.

Denver: Fiercely and unexpectedly beloved

The pre-Gilligan generation probably best remembers Denver as the archetypal beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, the goateed best-friend character on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which aired from 1959 to 1963. Dobie Gillis was the first TV show for and about the emerging teen culture of the baby boomers; Denver’s character, with his surrealist one-liners and trademark aversion to work, could be seen as a kind of predecessor to the 1960s hippie. It was Denver’s real-life love for jazz that inspired Maynard’s incessant bongo-playing and name-checking of bebop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. The character was nearly written out of the show four episodes in, when Denver suffered the un-Krebs-like fate of being drafted; after failing his physical, he returned to the series for the rest of its run. *

The year after Dobie Gillis ended, Denver would move on to his second iconic television role, the spacey sailor of Gilligan’s Island. Though the show was dismissed by critics as silly fluff, Gilligan’s Island immediately found a loyal following (its creator, Sherwood Schwartz, would again tap into the sitcom zeitgeist with The Brady Bunch a few years later), and though only 98 episodes were made during its three seasons on the air, the show has lived on in continuous syndication now for over 40 years.

Like Maynard G. Krebs, Gilligan was an endearing if hopelessly inept dreamer—in fact, 11 of the show’s episodes were structured around Gilligan’s dreams, in which he imagined himself, Walter Mitty-style, as a prince, a vampire, a caveman, or a secret agent. In episode after episode, the castaways’ elaborate escape plans were foiled by Gilligan’s clumsiness and sloth—when the crucial moment came, he always seemed to be off napping in a hammock somewhere. Did Gilligan even want to be rescued? Maybe he was alone among the castaways in appreciating the Rousseauistic perfection of their island life, with its unlimited supply of coconuts, the endless inventions of the Professor, and the virgin/whore dialectics of female beauty represented by Mary Ann and Ginger.

Denver’s subsequent movies and TV shows never took off (who remembers Rufus Butterworth in The Good Guys, or Dr. Dudley Plunkett in The Invisible Woman?), but he would return to the Gilligan role throughout his career, voicing the character in the ‘70s animated series Gilligan’s Planet (and, much later, in a guest spot on The Simpsons) and reuniting with the rest of the cast for a 1978 special, Rescue From Gilligan’s Island.

In 1998, at the age of 63, Denver was charged with possession of 35 grams of marijuana, which he claimed at first to have obtained from his friend and former Gilligan co-star Dawn Wells, who played the sharp but innocent Mary Ann. But later in court, Denver refused to narc on Wells, testifying that “some crazy fan must have sent it” (along, presumably, with the 10 other grams of pot and three pipes found in a search of his home). After pleading no contest to the charge, he received six months’ probation. Given Denver’s role in the creation of two of the archetypal TV slackers of our culture, there’s something sweet about this story: The image of the then 59-year-old Mary Ann acting as Gilligan’s supplier; his loyalty in refusing to name her in court; and most of all, the image of an aging Gilligan/Maynard G. Krebs, still dreaming away in his hammock or jamming on his bongo drums, smiling, a little high, and not quite ready to leave the island yet.

Correction, Sept. 12, 2003: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Bob Denver was “drafted for the Vietnam War.” He was drafted in 1959, which was several years before the United States became fully involved in the prosecution of the war. (Return to the corrected sentence.)