The Beatification of Bob Denver

Comic actor Bob Denver (1935-2005) was born on this historic day.

Something downright sinister happened to Denver towards the end of his life, happened in public, happened for all to see, and you know what it is. He was taken over, possessed by the character of Gilligan. Gilligan’s malevolent power will not be denied. Denver starred or co-starred in no less than five tv series, and played the occasional other role, at least through the early 1980s. And while it’s true that all of his characters are variations on the same one, the true founding character, as Baby Boomers have always been quick to tell me, was Mayard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. But in his last couple of decades, the demon Gilligan jealously swallowed everything else up until nothing else was left. This even when Denver was a man in his sixties, and looked like a man in his sixties, making it seem logical to be cast as characters in their sixties. But no. Trapped inside that red jersey and mashed down sailor’s cap, even when Denver’s soul, fighting for its life, tried to yell for help, it came out “Skip-PER!!!”

Let’s rectify the record. A little course correction for the Minnow, so to speak. A more complete picture of the man, for Denver was more than the mere boy he seemed, even from the beginning:

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963)

Was Denver a uniquely lucky man? Or cursed, in the end? You decide. When he was cast as the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1959, he was not a professional actor, but an elementary school teacher. He was untrained, but had appeared in some college plays, and had known Dobie Gillis star Dwayne Hickman in college. Denver played the work-averse Maynard for four seasons on the original show (longer than any subsequent series), and then in two later tv movies in 1977 and 1988. All later characters, including Gilligan, are mere variations on Maynard. Around the same time he also played similar characters in the movies Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) and For Those Who Think Young (1964). In the latter film, he plays a character named “Kelp”, which, if you ask me is more than a little derivative given that that was the name of Jerry Lewis’s character in The Nutty Professor the previous year.

Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967 + forever) 

Next, of course, his defining role. Willie Gilligan was a refinement on Maynard G. Krebs, but with more slapstick. Producer/ director Sherwood Schwartz was a kind of genius of the simple and iconic. Both Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch have never been out of circulation in re-runs. That was the form in which I experienced both shows as a child, and I found the imagery on both programs so vivid and powerful that I would dream about them in my sleep. This is one reason, I suspect, that Denver wound up trapped as the eternal Gilligan — that Gilligan costume is seared into our minds. I have much more blogging to do about the show as a whole; today we merely place it in the context of Denver’s life and career. Despite the universal panning of the show by critics, fans couldn’t get enough. In additional to the three seasons of the original show, Schwartz also gave us The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-77, animated), Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978), The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island (1979), The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), and Gilligan’s Planet (1982, animated).

And yet this was hardly all there was to Mr. Bob Denver. After the original run of “G.I.” went off the air, he went on to do:

The Good Guys (1968-1970)

There were no less than two seasons of Denver’s third sit-com, this time as junior partner to a schemer played by the great Herb Edelman.

During the same period, his legitimate movie career enjoyed its greatest flourishing. He’s in the all-star comedy Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967), a hippie drama called The Sweet Ride (1968), and the period comedy Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968) in which he co-stars with Phyllis Diller.

The fallow period between 1970 and 1973 was partially filled with four guest shots on Love, American StyleAnd — intriguingly — in 1970 he grabbed his first Broadway credit. He was the replacement for Woody Allen in the original Broadway production of Play it Again, Sam! He even got good reviews! Conceivably this could have been his ticket to respectability. But…

Dusty’s Trail (1973-1974)

Denver was teamed with F Troop veteran Forest Tucker in this Sherwood Schwartz comedy western series, which we blogged about here.

Far Out Space Nuts (1975)

Denver was teamed with Chuck McCann for this kid’s show, which we blogged about here. 

For awhile, there were guest shots on Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, and a handful of tv movies. But then it starts to get a little weird. Everything seems to go South. After 1983, going forward, Denver would never play another character other than Maynard G. Krebs or Gilligan (he never had anyway but in the past some of his characters had had other names). And of those many appearances over the next 14 years, he played Krebs only once — the rest was all Gilligan. He goes on ALF as Gilligan. He goes on Baywatch as Gilligan. He goes on The New Gidget as Gilligan. He opens a shopping mall as Gilligan.

Perhaps this is what drove him to weed. Yes, weed. Don’t look so shocked. He came to fame playing a beatnik, after all, probably because he was a beatnik. He even wore his own goatee, for God’s sake! He got busted for pot twice, in 1971 and 1998. Of course he did. After all, never forget that Denver is the “Mile High City”!

Denver was only 70 when he passed away in 2005. The cause, I’m told by those that know, was Gilliganitis.