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|Also Known As:||Robert Denver,Robert Denver||Died:||September 2, 2005|
|Born:||January 9, 1935||Cause of Death:||complications from treatment for cancer|
|Birth Place:||New Rochelle, New York, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor radio host|
A gentle physical comic with a knack for appearing simple without playing "dumb," Bob Denver put his talent to excellent use in two iconic television series of the 1960s: "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (CBS, 1959-1963) and "Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1964-67). Denver was the epitome of the screen beatnik as Maynard G. Krebs on "Gillis," but it was his turn as the accident-prone seaman Gilligan - no first name, despite rumors to the contrary - that made him a pop culture favorite for generations of fans. It also effectively neutralized his career, reducing Denver to playing the role over and over for TV series and convention crowds. If the idea galled him, he rarely showed it, preferring instead to bask in the happiness that he brought to audiences until his death in 2005. After his passing, he remained a beloved TV clown, forever a castaway and always at home in reruns.
Born in New Rochelle, NY on Jan. 9, 1935, Robert Osbourne Denver spent his formative years in Brownwood, TX before the family moved to Los Angeles while he was in his teens. His introduction to acting came largely under duress; he was forced to audition for a production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" by his speech teacher at Loyola Marymount, and landed, ironically enough, the role of a nervous young sailor. The experience helped to change Denver's focus from political science to drama, and after graduation, he studied acting at the Sylvia Herpolscheiemer Academy for Performing Arts while making ends meet as a mailman and a teacher at Corpus Christi School in Pacific Palisades.
Denver made his screen debut in 1959's "A Private Affair," a military comedy-musical with Sal Mineo and his future "Gilligan" co-star, Jim Backus. That same year, he landed his first iconic role, that of beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." A bonafide eccentric and free soul whose unkempt appearance and allergic reaction to work stood in direct opposition to Dobie's clean-cut appearance, the character was almost cut from the series when Denver received his draft notice shortly after filming the third episode. Maynard was given an elaborate send-off, and Michael J. Pollard was recruited to replace him as Maynard's cousin, Jerome. However, Denver was declared 4F, or unfit for duty, due to an existing neck injury, and was quickly back at work on the show. Maynard would soon become something of an archetype for both beatniks and hippies for television audiences, especially those who had no real life experience with them. He would also serve as a major influence on the animated character of Shaggy on "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" (CBS, 1969-1976), who shared Maynard's follicular and sartorial choices.
After "Gillis" left the air in 1963, Denver made guest appearances on a variety of television series, including a brief stint replacing Hoke Howell as wily hillbilly Dud Wash on "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68). He also reprised his beatnik persona as a singer at a coffee house in "Take Her, She's Mine" (1963) with James Stewart and Sandra Dee, and as a spacey surfer in "For Those Who Think Young" (1964). The latter film also featured Tina Louise, another future "Gilligan" castaway, as a tone-deaf dancer.
Denver was not the first actor chosen to play Gilligan on "Gilligan's Island;" producer Sherwood Schwartz initially wanted comic Jerry Van Dyke to play the role, but he was turned down when Van Dyke suggested that the series would never work. Schwartz then turned to Denver, and a pilot was shot in 1964. After shuffling some of the cast - Russell Johnson replaced John Gabriel as the professor, and Kit Smythe's Ginger, who was written as a secretary, became Tina Louise's movie star - "Gilligan's Island" was launched in the 1964-65 season to critical dismissal but ardent audience enjoyment. Key to the show's popularity was the relationship between Denver and Alan Hale's Skipper, who regarded each other with all the hallmarks of a classic comedy team. Off-camera, the pair were close friends, though the same could not be said of Denver and Louise, who clashed frequently over the latter's need for star recognition. Denver was also vocal in his high regard for Johnson and Dawn Wells, who played farm girl Mary Ann. Initially, both were summed up in the famous opening title theme as "the rest" after each of the main characters were mentioned. Denver lobbied for their inclusion, which resulted in a revamping of the song and a different perception of the Professor and Mary Ann as integral to the cast.
At the conclusion of the show's third season in 1967, Schwartz assured his cast that the program would return in the fall. It had enjoyed solid ratings during its entire three-year run, and there seemed no reason that the program would not be part of CBS' lineup for 1967-68. However, network president William Paley decided to move "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975) to "Gilligan's" time slot on Monday night rather than cancel the venerable Western, of which he and his wife were fans. The silly but beloved sitcom was unceremoniously dumped. The decision took Schwartz by surprise, as well as the cast, many of whom had purchased homes on the strength of their producer's convictions.
Denver worked regularly in the years after "Gilligan" was cancelled. There were minor roles in "Who's Minding the Mint" (1967) and the Phyllis Diller comedy "Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady" (1968), as well as guest shots on several shows, including recurring appearances on the anthology series "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974). And he briefly replaced Woody Allen on Broadway in the 1969-1970 run of "Play It Again, Sam." But none of these projects could eclipse "Gilligan" in popularity, and the show itself was growing into a pop culture phenomenon in syndication. Producers were largely unable to view him as anything but Gilligan, and he was frequently cast in projects that echoed the character and the series. "The Good Guys" (CBS, 1968-1970) starred Denver and Herb Edelman as slapstick-prone schemers whose get-rich-quick schemes inevitably turned to disaster. The addition of Alan Hale, Jr. to the cast could not save the program, which ended after a single season.
Even closer to the "Gilligan" format was "Dusty's Trail" (syndicated, 1973-74), a Western comedy about a lost wagon train that was created for Denver by Sherwood Schwartz. The series aped Gilligan's relationship with the Skipper in Dusty's love-hate partnership with Forrest Tucker's Mr. Callahan, but the show could not reproduce the popularity of its predecessor. It was followed by the equally short-lived "Far Out Space Nuts" (CBS, 1975-1976), with Denver and Chuck McCann as hapless astronauts marooned in space. It too hinged on Denver's past as Gilligan, and lasted only 16 episodes.
By this point, Denver, along with most of his "Gilligan" castmates, was resigned to the fact that he was hopelessly typecast as his TV character, and decided to simply embrace the role, rather than fight against it. He and all but two of his fellow castaways voiced their characters in "The New Adventures of Gilligan" (ABC, 1974-75), which simply picked up where the live-action show had left off. In 1978, he joined all of the cast members, save Tina Louise - who avoided all of the subsequent reunions - for "Rescue from Gilligan's Island" (NBC, 1978), which brought the castaways back to civilization after 15 years in exile. Naturally, their penchant for goofy behavior landed them back on a deserted island by the movie's end. A massive ratings hit, it prompted two follow-ups, "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island" (NBC, 1979) and "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" (NBC, 1981). In the former, the Howells (Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer) turn the island into a resort, where the other castaways act as tour guides, while the latter - which ranked as one of the most absurd scenarios ever presented on television - pitted the then very popular basketball team against a squad of robots commandeered by evil business tycoon Martin Landau. "Castaways" was initially viewed as the pilot for a new series, but the program never materialized. The entire cast, sans Louise, came together one last time for "Gilligan's Planet" (CBS, 1982-83), an animated series that transported the castaways to an alien planet.
The success of the "Gilligan" spin-offs gave Denver's career a modest boost, and he made the most of it by appearing in guest appearances on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1982) and shows of that ilk. There were also attempts to land a new series with "The Invisible Woman" (NBC, 1983), a comedy with Denver as a clumsy scientist whose invisibility serum is accidentally consumed by a reporter, but the show never passed beyond the pilot stage. By the mid-1980s, Denver was essentially reprising Gilligan for a constant string of TV guest shots. A few of these gave Denver a chance to flex his comic chops: an episode of "Alf" (NBC, 1986-1990) featured a dream sequence in which the titular alien dreamt he was stranded on the island with a very unhappy Denver as Gilligan, along with Hale, Wells and Johnson, while a 1995 episode of "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997) called "Sherwood Schwartz - A Loving Tribute" featured the cast of the sitcom impersonating the Gilligan castaways, while Denver, Johnson, Wells and Tina Louise played "Roseanne" characters in the end credits. Denver was amusingly cast as Laurie Metcalf's high-strung Jackie.
With Denver wrapped up in so much nostalgia, it was only a matter of time before someone revived his other major TV role, Maynard G. Krebs. He had briefly reprised the role in "Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis" (1977), an unaired pilot for a new "Gillis" series that featured a middle-aged Maynard finding his own bliss as a New Age guru. Eleven years later, Denver played Maynard as a wealthy, if still spacey, businessman who returned to his hometown in "Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis" (CBS, 1988), a quirky reunion show based loosely on the Swiss play "The Visit" and featuring Hickman's Dobie attempting to save his town from foreclosure while evading the clutches of former high school vixen Thalia (Connie Stevens, replacing Tuesday Weld).
In 1998, Denver made national headlines for being arrested after receiving a small amount of marijuana at his home. In his initial testimony, Denver said that he had received the drug from Dawn Wells, who herself had been arrested in 2007 for marijuana possession. Ever the good guy, Denver refused to name Wells in court as the sender and received six months probation for his troubles. He soon settled back into a regular routine of guest appearances, promotional opportunities and other nostalgia-driven ventures while operating a small FM-radio station, WGAG-LP, in his hometown of Princeton, WV. In 2005, Denver underwent quadruple bypass surgery shortly before being diagnosed with throat cancer. A lifelong smoker, he succumbed to a combination of cell carcinoma of the larynx and pneumonia on Sept. 2, 2005, with his fourth wife, Dreama, and his four children in attendance. He was subsequently cremated.
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