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“I did have a dream once that Alan Hale, the skipper of Gilligan’s Island, chased me through the streets of Hollywood.
Johnny Depp

“The creators of Lost must have watched and dissected every episode of good ole Gilligan’s isle and took the craziest parts from it to use in their new show.”
Shawny Nevill
Six Original and Creative Conicidences Between Lost and Gilligans Island

There is no question that Gilligan’s Island has had its shared of critics.  Rick DuBrow of UPI once summoned up a lot of people’s view of the show by writing, “It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube.” But there is also no question that the same show has more than its share of fans—even though the TV show was cancelled over forty years ago. (Of course, it’s never really gone off the air.)

And from a writer’s perspective you have to realize that the concept of being stranded on an island is fertile ground. Long before Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) there have been stories of living on deserted island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive, Son of Awake) by a Spanish Muslim in the 12th century is said to be one of the first known deserted island stories.

I imagine the Greeks and Romans had deserted island plays and there is the shipwrecked story of the Apostle Paul in the Bible, Shakespeare  touched on the concept in The Tempest, there have been true stories of related events like the one that inspired the original Robinson Crusoe story. And there have been several film versions of Robinson Crusoe including Luis Buñuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) and the more recent version Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. There’s the long-lasting reality TV program Survivor, and of course, LOST—well, you get the picture. The whole idea of being stranded on an island brings up so many primal themes to explore; life & death, time, food, economy, community, sociology, psychology, theology, purpose & meaning, etc.

But let’s not forget we are talking about Gilligan’s Island here. To bring things a little more down to earth it was Dawn Wells (who played the wholesome girl from Kansas, Mary Ann) who said about the lasting affinity for Gilligan’s Island; “It’s really kind of fun how it holds up – nonsensical silly slapstick humor is what it was. Escapism is all it was, but it was one of the best there was.”

I thought it would be fun to dig a little deeper into the cast of Gilligan’s Island knowing there would be a quirky surprise or two.

Gilligan—Bob Denver was actually a political science major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and before getting turned on to acting had thoughts of becoming a lawyer.

Mrs. Lovey HowellNatalie Schafer was 63 years-old before she shot her first scene for Gilligan’s Island. She was a Broadway actress from New Jersey and didn’t do a film until after she was 40-years-old. Because of wise real-estate investments she was a multimillionaire. Because most of the cast did not get paid residuals for all those re-runs I imagine Schafer ended up the wealthiest of the entire cast.  (Well, of the regular cast. Kurt Russell had a cameo as Jungle Boy in one episode and he’s had some $10-12 million dollar paydays on films, so unless he invested with Bernie Madoff he’s probably the wealthiest of all cast members.)

The Professor—Russell Johnson was born and raised in Pennsylvania and flew 44 combat missions for the Air Force during World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart for being shot down in the Philippines. He used the GI bill to study acting and was in the Sci-Fi classic It Came from Outer Space.

Mary Ann—Dawn Wells was from Reno, Nevada where she became Miss Nevada and competed in the Miss America pageant in 1960. She attended Stephens College in Missouri where she studied chemistry and transferred to the University of Washington where she graduated with a degree in theater. Wells once said in an interview,”One of the hardest things starting the acting was eliminating the chemistry side of me and just concentrating on the emotional, artistic side of me.” For the past 50 years she has been a working actress is film, TV, and theater.  She has a website DawnWells.com.

Ginger—Tina Louise who attended Miami University in Ohio, studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York.  (She studied with Lee Strasberg who also taught James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino.)  She also was a Broadway actress, a model and a night club singer before Gilligan’s Island.

Thurston Howell IIIJim Backus was born and raised in Cleveland where IMDB reported that one of his grade school teachers was Margaret Hamilton who went on to play the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Backus once had a top 40 song on the pop charts, was the voice of Mr. Magoo in cartoons, and in Rebel without a Cause was James Dean’s father.

The Skipper—Alan Hale’s father was an actor so he started acting in roles as a baby and had his last credit just two years before he died in 1990. He racked up over 200 Tv credits in his lifetime.

Wow, it’s like I won a bet to get Johnny Depp,  Luis Buñuel, Shakespeare, the Apostle Paul and Mary Ann all into one post. Now if I could just find a version of the Gilligan’s Island theme sung by Jimmy Buffett I would know all is right in the world.

P.S. If you’re stuck between stories—or between scenes—just remember these magical worlds;”The weather started getting rough…”

Related post: The Serious Side to “Gilligan’s Island”

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith


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