The Tragic Real-Life Stories Of The Gilligan's Island Cast

If you were stranded on a desert island and could take only one item with you, what would it be?

It's a fascinating thought experiment, and it's also the question that planted the seed that would grow into "Gilligan's Island." According to "Inside Gilligan's Island: From Creation to Syndication" (via Mental Floss), Sherwood Schwartz was part of a New York University public speaking class that was asked that very question, and while there were undoubtedly the inevitably snarky responses, Schwartz realized that it was a brilliant way to force very different people to work and live together.

"Gilligan's Island" ran for three seasons — from 1964 to 1966 — and there were just short of 100 episodes: 98, according to Rotten Tomatoes. (The average Tomatometer is an impressive 90%.) That means people have been getting that catchy theme tune stuck in their heads for decades, but as well-known as it is, there's still some fascinatingly obscure trivia. The Skipper's real name was Jonas Grumby, The Professor was Roy Hinkley, and the cast? Just like the characters they portrayed, they brought their own wildly diverse backgrounds to the island: From newcomers to experienced professionals, from World War II to breaking typecasting or becoming their character forever, some carried tragedy with them, and for some, it came after the show ended. For The Professor? It was both.

Russell Johnson's World War II injuries

Russell Johnson (right, with Bob Denver) already had a fairly long resume by the time he was cast as The Professor in "Gilligan's Island," but the Pennsylvania native wasn't always headed to Hollywood. According to Penn State, his father died when he was eight, and his mother — unable to care for all her children — was forced to send him to a local orphanage, where he stayed through high school. By the time he graduated, there was really only one option: Service in World War II. 

Johnson ended up going to radio and mechanic school, then became part of a B-25 bomber crew that flew 44 missions. He was awarded a slew of medals and citations, including a Purple Heart – given to those killed or wounded in combat. Johnson recalled the story in a 2007 interview for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, saying that it was a mission they had flown several times before: They were in the Philippines, sent to bomb a Japanese airstrip from a height of just 100 feet. "We ended up in the ocean," he explained. "We were shot up a bit ... our radio operator was killed."

Johnson was among those rescued by the Army's Sea Rescue group, and was transferred to a New Guinea military hospital. He had broken both his ankles, and when asked about his medals, he remained modest. "We were just like everybody else — just doing our job. We are just fortunate enough to be here today."

Tina Louise's resentment

It's an oft-repeated bit of "trivia" that there was an intense rivalry between the actresses that played Ginger and Mary Ann, but according to the actresses themselves, that's pretty far from the truth. Tina Louise (Ginger, pictured) recalled (via the New York Post), "Dawn (Wells, Mary Ann) was a very wonderful person. I want people to remember her as someone who always had a smile on her face."

When Wells spoke with Closer Weekly, she had nothing but good things to say about Louise. As far as she was concerned, Louise — the more experienced actress — taught her everything she needed to know about cameras, filming, and the technical, behind-the-scenes stuff. That said, Wells said there was one dark cloud over them. "I don't think she was told the truth about the show when she was hired," Wells reflected.

Louise seemingly walked into the show believing that she would be the main character, and play a movie star stranded on a desert island. That was technically true, but once she found out that she was more accurately one of an ensemble cast, she nearly quit. Ultimately, a new writer/director was tasked with handling the character of Ginger, and it left her with a conflicted relationship with the show. At the same time, she insists that she "really loved my character," and she consistently declined appearances in spin-offs, films, and revivals.

Jim Backus lived with Parkinson's for years

Jim Backus, of course, played Thurston Howell III, the millionaire who finally found himself in a situation that no amount of money could fix. When the Associated Press reported on his passing in 1989, they also revealed that he had been sick for a long, long time.

The official cause of his death was pneumonia, and he had been being treated for that for several weeks. He had also been diagnosed with Parkinson's years prior: When some of the "Gilligan's Island" cast attended a 70th birthday party for creator Sherwood Schwartz in 1986, Backus had to be carried up the stairs. Still, 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."

He spoke about his illness and diagnosis to the Petaluma Argus-Courier in 1984 (via Closer Weekly), saying that his symptoms started with lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting. He said then that his diagnosis was a little unclear: "Psychosomatic is an overused word," he explained. "To me, the physical problems were very real and still are. There is no accurate evaluation of what I have. I haven't been out of this house in almost six years. ... I'm determined to get well."

Natalie Schafer lost her fiancé in a car accident

Long before "Gilligan's Island," Natalie Schafer — the millionaire's wife — had a seriously impressive career on Broadway, and then later in film. According to The New York Times, she had no immediate survivors when she passed away at the age of 90.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Schafer had once been engaged to an actor, comedian, and former vaudeville star named Charles Butterworth. Butterworth — who was born in 1896 — started with a Notre Dame law degree, then got into the newspaper business, then theater — after he discovered he had a knack for ridicule. From the New York stage, it was on to Hollywood ... before a premature death in 1946. He was engaged to Schafer (pictured, in 1942) when he left a Hollywood nightclub, got into his car, and started driving: He was killed that day — June 14 — in a single-car crash.

Schafer was also married to the actor Louis Calhern. The name might not ring a bell, but his face is absolutely familiar, as he appeared in dozens of films, including classics like "Notorious" and "Annie Get Your Gun." He and Schafer had already divorced by the time he died in 1956. He had been on the set of what would have been his 69th film when he suffered a massive heart attack, and died (via The New York Times).

The death of Russell Johnson's son

A parent's worst nightmare is the death of their child, and in 1994, Russell Johnson lived through precisely that. According to Reuters, Johnson was married three times. He and his third wife, Constance, married in 1982 and they remained married until he died in 2014. Twenty years before that — in 1994 — Johnson's son, David, died at the young age of 39.

The official cause of his death was complications from AIDS, a tragedy that came eight years after David lost his partner to the same disease (via Neatorama). According to the Los Angeles Times, David was Los Angeles's first AIDS coordinator, and his father stepped up to do some amazing work in his memory.

As Outsider notes, Russell Johnson became an AIDS activist, raising awareness and much-needed funds to benefit a series of AIDS-related charities. Much of his later years were spent doing what he could to make sure other parents didn't have to suffer the same loss. 

The cast members snubbed in the credits

Everyone knows the theme song from "Gilligan's Island," but here's a weird bit of trivia courtesy of MeTV: The song that everyone sings wasn't in the first season. The initial season named some characters and their actors: Gilligan, The Skipper, the millionaire and his wife, and Ginger. The two remaining characters — The Professor and Mary Ann — were simply referred to as "the rest." Why? When Tina Louise signed her contract, there was a rider saying that she was listed last in the credits. Keeping her at the end didn't allow for plugging Mary Ann (center) and The Professor (left) into the body of the theme tune, so they were simply cut.

That changed in season two, when all the castaways were named in the opening credits. According to TV Series Finale, it wasn't until 1995 that Dawn "Mary Ann" Wells found out what had happened, and it's super sweet.

Bob Denver (right) was so upset by the snub that in the second season, he renegotiated his contract so he could choose the billing. When the network refused his request to put Wells and Russell Johnson in the opening credits, he chose to have his name last, and only in the end credits. Knowing that would raise some eyebrows and people would start asking questions, the network rewrote the song and intro to be fairer ... but only starting in season two.

Rich from royalties? Not exactly

It's another oft-repeated "fact" that Dawn Wells was the only "Gilligan's Island" cast member to negotiate a contract that gave her royalties, but Snopes says that's just not true. In 2012, Wells spoke with the Huffington Post: "Our producer (pictured, with Wells) made $90 million on the reruns of "Gilligan's Island" alone, but we didn't get any of it." (The producer's daughter, Hope Juber, has called that number "ridiculous.") Wells also spoke about how much she did make: $700 a week. She was new to the industry and stressed that more experienced actors got paid more: $750 per week.

She hadn't been the only one to speak out about a lack of compensation for the cast. When Russell Johnson passed away in 2014, The Washington Post noted that he had always been outspoken and resentful of the fact that cast members didn't get a cut of the syndication profits. That was about the same time Tina Louise spoke with The Wall Street Journal. In addition to sharing some fond memories of Johnson — "He was a lovely, lovely person. ... He is certainly in everybody's heart." — she, too, confirmed that the cast got nothing in the form of residuals or syndication fees.

Louise, for her part, had moved on from it: "Money's never been my God." But others have very publicly struggled: NBC reported that Wells was the recipient of nearly $200,000 in donations raised via GoFundMe after a 2-month hospital stay left her struggling to pay the bills.

Difficulties in being typecast

One of the problems with being in a hugely successful show is being typecast, and several of the "Gilligan's Island" cast members have been candid about the fact that they found it difficult to find work post-Gilligan. Russell Johnson (pictured) was fairly vocal about being typecast as The Professor, and a quick look at his acting credits shows that work dwindled for him. Before "Gilligan's Island," MLive says he was in dozens of movies — including westerns (he was in a gunfight with Ronald Regan once), and cult classics like "It Came From Outer Space." He was in scores of TV shows, too, including "The Twilight Zone," "The Lone Ranger," and "Gunsmoke." MeTV says that it took Johnson years to come to terms with the fact that he was and always would be The Professor, and that was pretty much all there was to it.

Bob Denver, too, was also typecast ... kind of ironically. Before he was Gilligan, he was the cool-guy sidekick on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," and according to MeTV, he was so completely associated with that character he almost wasn't cast as Gilligan. Once he took to the high seas, though, SFGate says most of his roles afterwards were as Gilligan, either on spinoffs, cartoons, or guest spots.

According to Closer Weekly, Jim Backus had his own struggles with typecasting — well before "Gilligan's Island." Although he's now well-known as the millionaire, for years, he was only known as the voice of Mr. Magoo.

Bob Denver's struggles in later years

There would be no "Gilligan's Island" without Gilligan, but Bob Denver's later years were filled with struggles. Denver's wife, Dreama, published a memoir called "Gilligan's Dreams; The Other Side of the Island." In it, she talked about facing serious financial difficulties because of a lack of residuals, says Fox News, and not only did that make starting their own foundation — The Denver Foundation, which supports individuals with special needs — difficult, but it made providing for his family difficult. According to what she told Cancer Today, he was never paid more than $1,500 per week, and once an episode had aired twice, there was no more money.

Then, in 1984, the couple welcomed their son, Colin. Colin was diagnosed with severe autism and a seizure disorder, and required around-the-clock, specialized care ... and it was care that wasn't cheap. "When money was tight, Bob would go do personal appearances and that would give us enough to tide us over," his wife shared. "We lived hand-to-mouth for a lot of our marriage."

Dreama Denver has been candid, too, about her husband's regrets regarding finances, saying that it always haunted him that he hadn't held out for a better deal that would have improved their financial standing in later years. Still, they made the best of it: "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."

Mary Ann and Gilligan were arrested for the same thing

In 1998, Bob Denver found drug enforcement agents knocking on his door. They had intercepted a package for him, and it contained 35 grams of marijuana.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the incident led to Denver's arrest. (He was later released on bond.) And that? That wasn't the end of the story. Denver was in West Virginia (where, as of 2022, marijuana is still illegal), and shortly after the news broke, a local TV station aired a story claiming that an anonymous source had come forward to say that the package was linked to his old co-star, Dawn Wells. Was it? That's never been confirmed — in fact, it's been adamantly denied by Wells's publicist — but in 2007, Wells had her own problems.

She was in Idaho (where, in 2022, it's still illegal as well) driving home from a surprise birthday party when she was pulled over by sheriffs who testified they witnessed some unsafe driving. Wells, Fox News reports, failed a field sobriety test and was escorted into police custody. Meanwhile, she said she had been giving a ride to some hitchhikers when they decided to light up — four half-smoked joints were discovered in her car, along with paraphernalia.

Bob Denver's alcohol use and cancer

When Dreama Denver released her memoir, "Gilligan's Dreams; The Other Side of the Island," she was incredibly candid about her life with Gilligan's Bob Denver, starting with the fact that their relationship almost didn't survive. Why? "I didn't think of him as an alcoholic, but he drank way too much, and that was a battle," she told Fox News. "Maybe it was alcoholism. Bob was a shy person and for him to have public adulation was odd."

Denver had another vice, too — smoking. Often going through a pack of cigarettes a day, it was the combination of smoking and drinking that Cancer Today says was later blamed for the development of what had formed into stage IV hypopharyngeal cancer, which is a cancer that forms in the lower part of the throat, larynx, tongue, thyroid gland, and lower jaw.

Denver underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and although he survived the operation — something which was in doubt going in — post-op tests revealed that there was still cancer in his body. With his chronic poor health a factor in limiting treatment options, it was decided that he wasn't strong enough for chemotherapy. Four months after his diagnosis, his wife said it was already clear he wouldn't survive. He passed away in 2005. 

Tina Louise is the last surviving cast member

When the New York Post spoke with Tina Louise in 2020, she was speaking as the last surviving cast member of "Gilligan's Island." The interview came on the heels of the death of Dawn Wells, who passed away on December 30, 2020. According to the BBC, the official cause of death for the 82-year-old was complications related to COVID-19.

Prior to her passing was the death of The Professor, Russell Johnson. He died in 2014 at the age of 89, with ABC reporting that his wife had announced his passing and cause — kidney failure. Bob Denver — Gilligan — died in 2005. According to the CBC, the official cause was complications from the cancer treatment he was undergoing, although he had other ongoing health issues as well. (Earlier that year, he had a quadruple bypass.) The Skipper and the millionaire's wife both passed away in 1991. Natalie Schafer was 90, and her obituary in The New York Times listed the cause of death as cancer. Alan Hale Jr. was 71 at the time of his passing, and his obituary — also in The New York Times — listed the cause as cancer of the thymus.

The 76-year-old Jim Backus died in 1989. His obituary referred to pneumonia and his diagnosis of Parkinson's, and also ended with a comment he'd made about "Gilligan's Island" and the lasting impact it had. "The critics assassinated it, but the kids flipped for it. I've been watching the reruns, and confess I'm hooked on it myself."