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The Tragic Off-Camera Lives of the Cast of ‘Gilligan’s Island’

Photo Credit: CBS / semyers / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: CBS / semyers / MovieStillsDB

While Gilligan’s Island only ran for three seasons between 1964 and 1967, it made a lasting impact on audiences. Its characters became iconic, and several spin-offs and sequels were created to keep its story going. Many of the actors who starred in the show became household names, but some of their off-screen lives were not as glamorous as one would think.

Bob Denver

Headshot of Bob Denver dressed as Gilligan from 'Gilligan's Island.'
Bob Denver poses in costume as Gilligan of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ 1965. (Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)

Considering he played Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island, it would be easy to assume that Bob Denver was making the big bucks. However, after the show finished, he and his family struggled financially. The main reason for this was that he was never paid more than $1,500 a week during the show’s filming, and his contract was that he was no longer paid any residuals after an episode aired more than twice.

When Denver and his wife, Dreama, had their son in 1984, he was diagnosed with severe autism and a seizure disorder. He required 24-hour specialized care that cost a great deal of money. Dreama explained, “When money was tight, Bob would go do personal appearances and that would give us enough to tide us over.” This meant that they “lived hand-to-mouth for a lot of [their] marriage.”

Despite their financial struggles, they still made the best of their lives, with Dreama explaining, “We struggled financially, physically, emotionally like anybody else, and sometimes I think it really helps folks to know that celebrities are not immune to the challenges of life.”

Jim Backus

Headshot of Jim Backus in costume as Thurston Howell III in 'Gilligan's Island.'
Jim Backus dressed in costume as Thurston Howell III from ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ (Photo Credit: CBS / hilts / MovieStillsDB)

When the show first aired, Wall Street millionaire Thurston Howell III was played by 51-year-old Jim Backus. Later in life, Backus struggled with his health, passing away at the age of 76 in 1989. At the time of his death, which was the result of pneumonia, news outlets revealed that he had been sick for quite a long time prior.

Additionally, Backus had been living with Parkinson’s disease for years. By the time he attended the 70th birthday party of the show’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz, his physical symptoms were taking their toll on him and he had to be carried up the stairs at the party, unable to take them by himself. His co-star, Tina Louise, recalled, “I asked him to dance and he bet me a million dollars he wouldn’t be able to dance, but he did.” Speaking about his Parkinson’s, Backus explained in 1984 how, “Psychosomatic is an overused word. To me, the physical problems were very real and still are. There is no accurate evaluation of what I have.”

Tina Louise

Dawn Wells, Bob Denver, and Tina Louise on 'Gilligan's Island.'
Dawn Wells (L), Bob Denver, and Tina Louise (R) pose in costume for ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ (Photo Credit: CBS / MoviePics1001)

A long-running rumor from the show was of an intense rivalry between Tina Louise, who played the Hollywood Star Ginger Grant, and Dawn Wells, who played wholesome farm girl Mary Ann Summers. If there was a rivalry between the two stars, they did a good job hiding it. Louise herself said, “Dawn was a very wonderful person. I want people to remember her as someone who always had a smile on her face.” Wells too, said only nice things about Louise, crediting her with teaching her all kinds of things about the entertainment industry, including filming, cameras, and more.

If Louise felt any resentment, it wouldn’t have been centered on Wells. Instead, it would’ve been centered on the fact that she came into filming believing she was the show’s main character. “I don’t think she was told the truth about the show when she was hired,” Wells explained. The surprise was enough that Louise nearly quit the show, and despite having played Ginger for the three seasons of the show, Louise had an obviously difficult relationship with it, consistently declining revivals and spin-offs.

Russell Johnson

Alan Hale Jr., Russell Johnson, and Bob Denver in water to their knees in a scene from 'Gilligan's Island.
Alan Hale Jr., Russell Johnson, and Bob Denver stand knee-deep in water in the ‘Two On a Raft’ episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ 1966. (Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)

Russell Johnson, who played “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island, dealt with difficulties in life long before he joined the show. When he was just eight years old, his father passed away, forcing his mother to send him to an orphanage, where he stayed until he was 18. When he graduated high school, he enrolled in the US Air Force to serve in WWII, where served as part of a B-25 bomber crew, flying 44 combat missions.

On one of the missions he was involved in, he had to low-level bomb a Japanese airstrip in the Philippines from 100 feet, in which he and two other aircraft were shot down. “We ended up in the ocean,” he explained. “We were shot up a bit… our radio operator was killed.” Johnson broke both of his ankles in the landing but was among those who were rescued by the Army’s Sea Rescue group. He was then transferred to a military hospital in New Guinea.

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Following this, he was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries, as well as several others for his time spent serving in the war. When asked about his medals, he said, “We were just like everybody else – just doing out job. We are just fortunate enough to be here today.”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!