Bob Denver, whose portrayal of goofy castaway Gilligan on the 1960s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” made him an iconic figure to generations of TV viewers, has died. He was 70.
Denver died Friday at Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital in North Carolina of complications from treatment he was receiving for cancer, his agent, Mike Eisenstadt, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Denver, who for the past several years had lived in Princeton, W.Va., also underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery earlier this year.
His wife, Dreama, and children Patrick, Megan, Emily and Colin were with him.
“He was my everything and I will love him forever,” Dreama Denver said in a statement.
An underrated comedian
Denver’s signature role was Gilligan, but when he took the role in 1964 he was already widely known to TV audiences for another iconic character, Maynard G. Krebs, the bearded beatnik friend of Dwayne Hickman’s Dobie in the “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963.
Krebs, whose only desire was to play the bongos and hang out at coffee houses, would shriek every time the word “work” was mentioned in his presence.
Gilligan on the other hand was industrious but inept. And his character was as lovable as he was inept. Viewers embraced the skinny kid in the Buster Brown haircut and white sailor hat. So did the skipper, who was played by Alan Hale Jr. and who always referred to his first mate affectionately as “little buddy.”
“I feel like a part of me is gone, too,” Hickman told The Associated Press. “We were a comedy team and I was proud to be his straight man. He was a wonderful comedian. Underrated, really.”
California state Sen. Sheila James Kuehl, who played Dobie’s love-struck pursuer, remembered Denver as a mentor, both in acting and life.
“What he taught me about acting was when you work to make the other person look good, you end up looking good yourself,” she said. “What he taught me about life was that you could love your work, but it was really more important to love your friends and family.”
“As silly as it seems to all of us, it has made a difference in a lot of children’s lives,” Dawn Wells, who played castaway Mary Ann Summers, once said. “Gilligan is a buffoon that makes mistakes and I cannot tell you how many kids come up and say, ‘But you loved him anyway.”’
TV critics were less kind, dismissing the show about a group of tourists being stranded on an uncharted desert island as inane. But after it was canceled by CBS in 1967, it found new audiences over and over in syndicated reruns and reunion films, including 1981’s “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.” (It also led to the recent TBS reality series “The Real Gilligan’s Island.”)
One of the most recent films was 2001’s “Surviving Gilligan’s Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History,” in which other actors portrayed the original seven-member cast while three of the four surviving members, including Denver, narrated and reminisced.
He’ll always be Gilligan
After “Gilligan’s Island,” Denver went on to star in other TV series, including “The Good Guys” and “Dusty’s Trail,” as well as to make numerous appearances in films and TV shows.
But he never escaped the role of Gilligan, so much so that in one of his top 10 lists — “the top 10 things that will make you stand up and cheer” — “Late Show” host David Letterman once simply shouted out Denver’s name to raucous applause.
“It was the mid-’70s when I realized it wasn’t going off the air,” Denver told The Associated Press in 2001, noting then that he enjoyed checking the Web site eBay each day to keep up on the prices “Gilligan” memorabilia were fetching.
“I certainly didn’t set out to have a series rerun forever, but it’s not a bad experience at all,” he added.
The show’s success, according to its creator, Sherwood Schwartz, was rooted in the fact that people of entirely different backgrounds were thrown together each week in a comedic setting.
“I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications,” Schwartz said.
Besides Hale’s skipper and Wells’ young farm-girl tourist, the other castaways were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer, as rich snobs Thurston and Lovey Howell; Tina Louise, as movie star Ginger Grant; and Russell Johnson, as science professor Roy Hinkley Jr.
Denver’s death leaves Wells, Johnson and Louise as the cast’s surviving members.
Denver was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Jan 9, 1935. He discovered acting while studying law at Loyola University in Los Angeles in the 1950s. While struggling to make it as an actor, he taught private school and worked for a time at a post office.
After landing a small role in the 1959 Sal Mineo film “A Private Affair,” he was cast as Krebs in “Dobie Gillis” and his career took off.
Denver is survived by his wife and children and a granddaughter, Elana. The family said no memorial service is planned.