''Star Trek,'' ''I Love Lucy,'' and more all had slow starts but grew into TV classics

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Gilligan's Island

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Buck up, Brooke, Ted, Bill, et al. A rejiggered pilot may signal panic, but it doesn’t doom a show to failure. Before they became megahits and reaped millions in syndication, even these TV staples received emergency repairs.

I Love Lucy (1951-61) CBS may have caved to Lucille Ball’s demand to cast her real-life Cuban husband, Desi Arnaz (it wanted an Anglo actor), but it axed the pilot. Execs deemed it too vaudevillian when Lucy, in a clown suit, crashes her mate’s TV audition. By airdate, wacky neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz were brought in to keep the comedy closer to home. The first episode launched the tradition of domestic squabbling, with Fred and Ricky angling to see a fight and Lucy and Ethel opting to go to a club.

The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) Execs loved the concept — not the casting. Originally called Head of the Family, the pilot starred series creator Carl Reiner as Robert Petrie, a role white-bread Van Dyke eventually made famous. Some analysts have said there was a fear Reiner was too Jewish to appeal to middle America (a theory Reiner has disputed). Also nixed: sexy blond Barbara Britton as Laura, who was replaced by wholesome Mary Tyler Moore.

Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) Overruling creator Sherwood Schwartz, CBS scuttled the pilot, in which the castaways land on the tropical island. Instead the network let the theme song tell the ”tale of a fateful trip” and kicked off with the second episode, the first of many foiled escape attempts. With Tina Louise replacing Kit Smythe, Ginger morphed from a wisecracking actress to a vacuous movie star.

Star Trek (1966-69) NBC considered the original pilot, The Cage (about a race of telepathic aliens), too cerebral but had invested too much ($630,000) to give up, so creator Gene Roddenberry made changes. He wrote a more action-packed episode, and the show’s first captain (actor Jeffrey Hunter) and other crew members were lost in space. Roddenberry did win one battle: NBC reportedly wanted him to get rid of the ”pointed ears” guy.

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Gilligan's Island

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