Little Buddy: The Life of Bob Denver

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Robert Osbourne David Denver was born in New Rochelle, New York, on January 9, 1935 (that is exactly one day after the birth of Elvis Presley). Just as his "distinguished-sounding" real name seems a bit incongruous for the actor who was to achieve worldwide fame playing a perennial goofball named "Gilligan", so the real-life Bob Denver was almost a direct dichotomy to the character too.

Shy, introverted, highly intelligent and well-read from his youth and on into adulthood, Bob, and his family, soon moved to Brownwood, Texas, where he was to grow up. His early jobs included working as a mailman and as a high school teacher of both math and physical education.

After high school, he moved to California, where he enrolled at Loyola-Marymount College in Los Angeles. Denver earned a degree in political science and was considering a career in law when he got bit by the acting bug.

He made his stage debut in a west coast stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court-martial in the late fifties. Soon thereafter, he made his movie debut in the 1959 film A Private's Affair with Sal Mineo (also in the cast was his later Gilligan's Island co-star Jim Backus). The year 1959 also brought the young actor his first big break when he was cast as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

Denver's portrayal of Krebs is legendary in television history. His catch phrases "You rang?" upon his entrance in every episode and his stimulus-response of "Work??" whenever the word came into the conversation became highly popular and Maynard became one of television's first icons and "breakout characters." Denver's character was so popular there was a huge backlash from fans when rumors of Maynard being drafted into the army cropped up during the show's run (in real life, Denver had broken his neck in 1956, saving him from actually being drafted into the military).

Although the "Gilligan" character is more well-known nowadays, Denver actually played Maynard in more episodes (142 to 98) and it was Maynard who was later voted one of TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Characters. After the Dobie Gillis run ended in 1963, Denver again played a beatnik-like character in the 1964 movie For Those Who Think Young (also featuring his soon-to-be co-star Tina Louise).

In 1964, Denver was cast in his signature role as the bumbling, but well-meaning Gilligan in one of TV's most beloved and perennial cult shows Gilligan's Island. The role of Gilligan was originally offered to Dick Van Dyke's kid brother Jerry, who turned it down to do the notorious flop series My Mother the Car. Despite savage reviews from the critics, Gilligan's Island was to become (according to many sources) the single most rerun show in the history of television, surpassing even I Love Lucy in terms of worldwide showings.

Denver, the show's star, was well-known for taking care of his fellow actors. He ensured Dawn Wells got as much publicity as the more publicity-hungry Tina Louise, and also made sure the names "the Professor" and "Mary Ann" were featured in the show's theme song during the second and third seasons of the show's run (the two characters were referred to as "the rest" in season one).

Denver and the cast got along famously, with the sole exception of actress Tina Louise, who played the movie star Ginger. While Denver wanted the show to be a wholesome show mainly for kids, Louise wanted to play Ginger very broadly as an overtly sexy bombshell. This led to several arguments between Denver and Louise, and the bad blood between them carried on long past the show's original run.

Besides this, Louise had originally believed she was to be the star of the show and was reportedly upset that Denver was the show's central character and had the meatiest role. One wonders where she got this strange idea, as the show was called Gilligan's Island.

Sparks with Louise aside, Denver highly enjoyed playing the Gilligan role and all the slapstick physicality it entailed. He and comedy partner Alan Hale (as the Skipper) became TV's version of Laurel and Hardy, playing off each other as the comic and straight man perfectly. According to Denver, often right before the camera started rolling, Hale would whisper to him what he was going to do and just let the two play out the improvised idea.

When asked to name his favorite Gilligan episodes, Denver graciously said "The ones with the dream sequences," and said he favored them because all the cast members got to really show their talent in them.

After the cancellation of Gilligan's Island in 1967, Denver battled the TV icon's greatest enemy- typecasting. Although he was to somehow move on from Maynard to Gilligan, after the cancellation of Gilligan's Island, Denver's career became much more spotty and irregular. He starred in two other less successful series The Good Guys (1968-70) and Dusty's Trail (1973), a pale Gilligan rip-off.

Realizing that he would forever be Gilligan to countless millions of fans around the globe, Denver voiced his signature role in two cartoon spin-offs and three TV movies (each featuring the original Gilligan's Island cast with the exception of Tina Louise, who wanted to shed her "Ginger" image, much like a snake sloughing it's skin). Denver also reprised the Gilligan role in several TV series, including Alf and Baywatch, as well as the 1987 beach party film Back to the Beach. He also recreated the character for the Make-a-Wish Foundation at a fundraiser in 1992.

In 1993, he wrote his memoirs Gilligan, Maynard and Me. The book, like its author, is fun and entertaining, with the minor caveat of Denver's slightly harsh words for former co-star Tina Louise. It is apparent from the book that Gilligan still harbored more than a bit of animosity for Ginger.

Life was not without controversy for the easygoing, family-friendly Denver. In 1976, while preparing to appear in a stage production of Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam in Norfolk, Virginia, he was charged with driving under the influence as well as driving without a license and refused to take an alcohol or blood test.

In 1998, Denver made headlines when he was arrested for possession of marijuana, which he claimed former Gilligan's Island co-star Dawn Wells had mailed to him. At the court trial, he recanted and refused to name Wells, saying "some crazy fan" must have mailed it to him.

Married four times in real life, Denver finally found the love of his life in Dreama Perry, who he married in 1979 (the two were to be happily married for 26 years). The couple had four children, three from Denver's previous marriages. In his later years, after moving to his adopted home of Princeton, West Virginia, Denver became a radio personality as he and Dreama co-hosted and ran a small oldies style radio show.

After submitting to quadruple bypass surgery in early 2005, Denver was diagnosed with cancer. He was treated at Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital and died in Winston-Salem on September 2, 2005. He was 70 at the time.

On September 6, 2005, four days after his death, Denver's former co-star on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, actress-turned-state senator Sheila James Kuehl, who played boy-crazy Zelda on the show, was granted her request that the senate adjourn in Denver's memory.

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Hmmmm. Maybe I'm biased towards character actors (naturally), but I don't personally think of Laura as iconic. I guess enough folks would ("Oh, Rob" would probably put her over the top).

I think a stronger argument could be made for Gwynne, Lewis, and William Frawley...
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Wow Eddie, your article takes me back a bit. I grew up watching Dobie Gillis as a small kid all because I spent time working at a neighborhood grocery store. In the series, Dwayne Hickman helped his father out at his Dad's store, so I related. Bob Denver's characature, Maynard G Krebs was funny to me. I would see the news talk about "beatnicks", but I didn't know what a beatnick was until I saw Denver playing one. The craze only lasted two or three years, and then I lived through the "Hippies."

Back in the late 1960's I got hooked on a show called "The Good Guys". It was kinda quirky and it appealed to me as a teenager, that I actually wrote a "fan letter" to Bob Denver asking him if I could start a Bob Denver fan club. To my surprise, a week later I got a letter from him in the mail. He hand wrote a thank you and said that I should come to meet him and watch him tape the show. If I recall, he taped it at CBS in Hollywood. Being that I hadn't gotten my drivers license yet, I skipped on my chance.

As a side-note... I STILL have the letter he wrote me packed away in a trunk in the closet. It's funny how little moments like this come back to you so many years later (like in Eddie Deezen's article)!
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