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Sherwood Schwartz: The 'Gilligan's Island' and 'Brady Bunch' creator remembers his own shows

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Sherwood
Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 1997, when Sherwood Schwartz, who died today at the age of 94, sat down for a six-hour interview for the Archive of American Television, he was asked how he’d like to be remembered. “As a man who tried to explain, in his own way, that people have to learn to get along with each other,” he answered. It’s the concept at the center of his two most beloved shows, Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. When creating Gilligan’s Island in the early 1960s, he wanted to place seven disparate people in a place they couldn’t escape. “Where could they be that they had to get along with each other? That was the idea for the show, and it’s the most important idea in the world today,” he said. “For people who toss away the show as just a silly broad comedy, it’s deeper than that.” 

The seed for The Brady Bunch was planted when, in the mid 1960s, he read a stat in the Los Angeles Times stating that 30 percent of marriages at that time included a child from a previous marriage. He saw a wealth of new stories, including one inspired by a tale his daughter, then in junior high, told him about a classmate from a divorced home who was having a problem choosing which parent to invite to a school play. The auditorium was so small that both parents, at least one of whom had remarried, weren’t allowed to attend. Kids have feelings too, he thought.

If you watch excerpts from that 1997 interview, which have been posted to YouTube, you’ll realize how close we came to never getting The Brady Bunch. As Schwartz recalled, he took the pilot script to NBC first, and the network wanted to buy it if he’d change the ending. It showed Mike and Carol trying to have a good time on their honeymoon but feeling that something was missing. They went home, picked up the kids, Alice, and the dog, and took them back to their honeymoon suite. NBC execs thought it was ridiculous — no couple on their honeymoon would do that. Schwartz refused to rewrite it. “I want people who are watching to have respect for these parents who in spite of their love for each other want to include their children in that love,” he told them.

He went to ABC, who accepted his ending but wanted him to expand the script to 90 minutes. Schwartz was willing to add on scenes in the beginning of Mike and Carol’s courtship before the wedding, but ABC wanted him to just expand existing scenes, which Schwartz thought would make them dull. He went to CBS, who wanted the show to start at what he considered like episode 7 as opposed to the beginning. He was determined not to change his vision. “Here’s a wonderful thing that happens,” he quipped in that interview. “Almost every year, half the executives are fired. So the next year, I went back to the same three networks and talked to three different people.” He ran into the same issues, so he went back a third year. It wasn’t until ABC saw the success of the 1968 feature film Yours, Mine, and Ours — which told the story of how Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball’s characters met and combined their families — that ABC agreed Schwartz could expand the script his way. “It was the 90-minute pilot they wanted to see,” he joked. “That’s how I sold [The Brady Bunch], based on a movie that I had nothing to do with.”

Schwartz had a difficult time selling Gilligan’s Island as well. When he first told the idea to his longtime agent, the feedback was, “Sherwood, you’re out of your f—in’ mind,” he recalled. “Who the hell is gonna watch the same goddamn seven people on the same goddamn island every week?” He switched agents, and the new one had the same initial reaction. But after reading 31 ideas Schwartz had for episodes, he made a call to CBS, and it was sold — even though the head of programming thought it would take too much exposition each week to explain why these strangers were on a desert island together. The theme song would take care of that, Schwartz promised.

The interview is full of juicy behind-the-scenes bits like this. According to Schwartz, Gilligan’s Island had been renewed for a fourth season, but when William S. Paley saw that the proposed fall schedule didn’t include his and his wife’s favorite show, Gunsmoke, Schwartz had to call back his actors, two of whom had just bought houses, and tell them the show was canceled to make room for it. But just as fascinating are the anecdotes Schwartz offered to show the impact of his two series. He recalled the Coast Guard asking him for a meeting about 10 weeks after Gilligan’s Island premiered. A batch of telegrams from concerned/delusional viewers asking why they couldn’t spare one vessel to go rescue these seven people were dropped on his desk. “Now who did they think was laughing at what was happening to these people?” Schwartz said chuckling, referencing the show’s laugh track. “Where did they think the music came from, and the commercials?”

Schwartz recalled Tina Louise, who resented how the show had typecast her as Ginger, explaining to him the moment she learned to appreciate the series: A woman told her that the only thing that was giving her dying husband relief from his pain was watching tapes of her on Gilligan’s Island. That his shows could provide comfort to people when they needed it was something Schwartz took pride in. That’s why he helped build “the Brady Bunch waiting room” and “the Gilligan’s Island waiting room” for sick children. “It was my theory, which I’ve discussed with doctors, [that] when the child comes to a hospital, it’s an awesome sight, and it’s sterile and it’s unfriendly, and doctors and nurses, it’s scary,” he said in 1997. “So I figured if I call the rooms that, and we put pictures of the stars around the room… they thought that was a terrific idea.”

I never met Sherwood Schwartz, but I feel confident saying the man was all heart. He penned a goodbye letter to family, friends, and fans that he wanted The Hollywood Reporter to publish upon his passing. Read it here. It’s the clever conversation he imagined himself having with “the Voice” at the Pearly Gates. It expresses his love for his family and his career. I know I teared up at the end when the Voice tells him to ask what everyone who arrives there wants to — is he going to Heaven or not? “‘That’s what I was going to ask when I got here,’ I say. Then I suddenly realized something when we talked. Heaven is where I’ve been since the day I was born.” With that simple line, he gives comfort to his family, friends, and fans one last time, in the most beautiful way.

In honor of Schwartz, share your favorite Gilligan’s Island or Brady Bunch memory. His favorite Brady Bunch episode, he revealed in that 1997 interview, was “Father of the Year.” Marcia wrote an essay entering Mike into the newspaper’s Father of the Year contest — because even though he wasn’t her biological dad he was her real father — and she had to sneak out of the house at night to make the deadline. She didn’t want to reveal the letter she’d had to mail was for this contest, so she was punished. She won the contest, and Mike found out the truth when he was surprised with the award and read her letter. “Every time I see it, it brings a tear to my own eye,” Schwartz said. Watch the final moment here.

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‘Brady Bunch,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island’ creator Sherwood Schwartz dead at 94

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