A rough start almost got Sherwood Schwartz kicked off Gilligan's Island
His would-be replacement came from The Twilight Zone.
Image: The Everett Collection
Initial shooting for Gilligan's Island was not exactly a day in paradise. Director John Rich knows because he was there, the man behind the camera of the show's very first episode. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rich remembered, "We had shark bites and rafts being eaten up. We had to shoot in tanks. It was some difficult shooting, but it came out very well. We had to sink a ship.”
If it sounds like less than smooth sailing, you would be correct. In fact, it took Schwartz so long to turn his scripts into a film reel that CBS' top programming executive Hunt Stromberg started to get a little nervous that Schwartz couldn't deliver on his own show concept. Behind Schwartz's back, Stromberg started moving pieces, preparing for a day in the future when he would point to the part in Schwartz's contract that said he could be let go at any time.
According to Rich, the Gilligan's Island crew dealt with plenty of wild requests from network execs, including early on some pretty outlandish ideas. "It’s a very dangerous thing when you hear a network executive say, ‘I’ve got a great idea,'" Rich said, then described this encounter he had with a network head:
Network Head: "I've got a great idea."
John Rich: "Yes."
NH: "There's this helicopter, see, that comes down to try to rescue the castaways?"
NH: "And it lands in quicksand."
NH: "And it screws itself down into the quicksand."
JR: "Uh-huh. What do you do for take two?"
JR: "How do you recover the helicopter?"
"He didn't like that," Rich said of his pushback. However, of all the silly ideas tossed about by studio heads in regards to Gilligan's Island, Stromberg's has to be the silliest.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, the TV writer Sol Saks (Bewitched series creator) reluctantly told a story about his good friend Sherwood Schwartz, who he remembers seeing first in a meeting with a "bunch of suits," describing Schwartz as "a little writer sitting there, and they're all telling him what's wrong."
It seems nobody really liked Schwartz's concept, and when a producer quit on the show, and when Schwartz decided to just replace him himself, there was a push from Stromberg to push Schwartz off the show entirely. Saks said that when Schwartz didn't even have a foot of film to show close to production time after his producer quit, the decision was made in a meeting where executives agreed to fire Schwartz: "Look, everybody likes Sherwood. We’ve got to let him go.”
This was no idle thought, either. They found a replacement in WIlliam Froug, a producer who came up on dramatic anthology series before producing episodes of The Twilight Zone like "Living Doll" and "The Bewitchin' Pool." He was already on set of Gilligan's Island as an executive producer, and the plan was to promote him to replace Schwartz. According to Saks, "They put Bill Froug in his place because Bill had produced, and Bill told me this story: They set up a meeting, he and Sherwood, where he was going to tell him as diplomatically as possible that he was to leave the show."
Just before that meeting, though, fate intervened. The network ratings came in, and it showed Gilligan's Island had risen in popularity. Seeing this, Saks said Froug called up CBS exec Hunt Stromberg and their exchange went like this:
William Froug: "About that meeting with Sherwood."
Hunt Stromberg: "Well, I told you. Tuesday, you are going to tell him [he's out.]"
WF: "Yeah, yeah. But did you see the new ratings? Gilligan's Island is No. 4!"
HS: "Cancel the meeting! Cancel the meeting!"
Saks said he isn't even sure Schwartz had any idea he could be replaced on his own show, let alone come so close. According to Rich, though, the talents of Schwartz should never have been underestimated, "He had [Gilligan's Island] solid from the beginning."