It’s Bob Denver’s birthday! But I bet you were already celebrating that, weren’t you? I think it’s a pretty good sign of how toxic, weird and perverse our culture can be that Mr. Denver (1935-2005), who was no Olivier but certainly was capable of doing an actor’s job, was expected to continue to play the character of the teenaged Willy Gilligan well into his sixties rather than, say, some age-appropriate role. As though the public were so bleeding stupid that they would look at him in some other role and go, “I don’t understand — you mean he’s not Gilligan? But…how can that be?” No, no, much better to send a 68 year old man to supermarket openings dressed in a red jersey and sailor cap.
But of course he was more than just Gilligan…although it must be admitted that his chain of television roles was broadly Gilliganesque. Older folks remember him as the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis (1959-1963). Gilligan’s Island ran from 1964 to 1967. And we’ve already written about his role as a space janitor in Far Out Space Nuts (1975) here.
But that doesn’t close the book on Mr. Bob Denver, no sir, not by a long shot. For in 1973, he starred as frontier butterfingers “Dusty” in the Sherwood Schwartz-produced Dusty’s Trail. NOW. I am not one of these Schwartz HATERS. I find the mind of Dr. Schwartz endlessly fascinating, and have long wanted to write an essay on the importance of number and geometry in his work, a trait he shares in common with all the great comic playwrights. (Schwartz is real big on sixes and sevens, and pairings). This aligns strongly with his interest in archetype, which he spoke and wrote about publicly many times in defense of his work, which was accused of being moronic. And, well, yes it kind of was. At least the dialogue that people spoke, and the situations we were expected to believe. And yet it possessed a certain power. His shows are perfect for children, and as a child I found both Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch so very powerful that I had vivid dreams about them in my sleep. Those archetypes went right to work in their natural playground, the subconscious.
Now, one also can’t ignore the fact that Dr. Schwartz was lazy…those endless tv movie reunions of the Gilligan and Brady franchises seem the height of creative bankruptcy. Any other cards up your sleeve, sir? Well, there were a couple. He helped produce Big John, Little John, which we wrote about here. And in 1973, there was Dusty’s Trail…a new low.
For Dusty’s Trail, Schwartz essentially just took the characters from Gilligan’s Island and transplanted them to the Old West, on a perpetually lost wagon train. Of the old cast, apparently he was only able to get Bob Denver, who played “Dusty” a distinctly Gilliganesque bumbling mule skinner. For the “Skipper” equivalent, apparently Alan Hale, Jr. was unavailable, so Schwartz did the next best thing — he cast Forrest Tucker of F Troop in the Skipper-like leadership role. And the rest? A group of familiar character actors portraying a rich banker and his wife, a farm girl, a schoolteacher and a dance hall girl. (Sound anything like a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a professor and a movie star?) And instead of racist depictions of South Sea Islanders we get racist depictions of American Plains Indians that are SO out of step for 1974 that it’s mind-boggling. It’s “how, Ugh” stuff, but several years after landmark shifts in Native American characterization like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
In short, Schwartz barely lifted a finger in the generation of this “new” idea, he just took old Gilligan’s Island scripts, crossed out “island” stuff and wrote in “western” stuff. I had never even heard of it until I found a bootleg DVD in the 99 cent bin a few years ago. And naturally watched every single episode (there are 26 of them. My favorite is the one in which Forrest Tucker dresses in drag. Oh, it’s disturbing, alright, plenty disturbing)
For more on slapstick comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc