Bob Denver, R.I.P.
All the other obits for Bob Denver will probably show you a picture from Gilligan's Island and make passing mention of his earlier role as Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. And he was good on both shows, especially the latter. It was as the TV-scrubbed beatnik Krebs, who went into shock at sound of the word "work" that many of us first saw him and realized what a good actor he was.
But I decided to post a photo from his first post-Gilligan series, The Good Guys, a little-remembered gem that ran two seasons — went on in '68 and went off in early '70 — and has rarely been rerun since. It starred Denver as a cab driver who was life-long friends with the operator of a diner. The friend was played by Herb Edelman, a great character actor, and his wife was played by Joyce Van Patten. (The same year The Good Guys went on, Edelman filmed the movie version of The Odd Couple, re-creating the role of Murray the Cop he'd originated on Broadway. The one time I met him years later, he said he loved The Good Guys and his one regret about it, apart from its short run, was that it prevented him from playing Murray on the Odd Couple TV show with Klugman and Randall.)
Anyway, someone oughta rerun The Good Guys because it was a pretty good show. It was filmed in front of a live audience on Stage 2 at CBS Studio Center, which was the same stage that had previously held that island on which Gilligan was stranded. It had been converted to an audience stage (Gilligan was filmed without one) but Denver always told people he recognized it because there was still sand in every crevice. One hopes they got it all out by the time The Mary Tyler Moore Show took up residence in there. Here, courtesy of the management of the forthcoming website, oldtvtickets.com, is a ticket from The Good Guys…
Denver's career after that was a flurry of unsold pilots and short-lived shows (anyone remember Dusty's Trail?). The one time I met him was when he did the first of two unsuccessful attempts to revive the old Dobie Gillis show. In 1978, my then-employer Jimmie Komack got the job of producing Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?, which was one such pilot. The show's creator, Max Shulman, had written a very funny script in tandem with Eric Cohen and on the strength of it, most of the old cast committed…though Denver, we heard around the office, was an expensive participant. Working from the premise that the continued success of Gilligan's Island had made him a TV superstar — or maybe just from the idea that you couldn't revive Dobie without Maynard — he demanded and got star billing, even above Dwayne Hickman who played Dobie, and enough money that Komack spent the whole time stalking around the office, grousing that Denver had committed grand larceny. As I recall, Denver also insisted that he would not dye his white hair, and Jimmie thought that for what they were paying him, he should have been willing to tint it aquamarine and tie it in braids.
I had nothing to do with the pilot other than to be around and watch in horror as Komack decided he was going to "reinvent" the show, and that he was eminently qualified to do this because he had never been a fan of the old series. He got rid of Shulman and that script, commissioned a new one that contained none of the old charm, and produced a revamp that absolutely no one liked. Hickman was rightly furious that Dobie had been devalued. Denver was angry about that, plus the fact that his "return" to prime-time sitcoms was such a fiasco. About the change of scripts, he kept saying, "Bait and switch, bait and switch." He'd never have signed on, he said, if they'd offered him the script that he and the others ultimately had to perform.
I remember two conversations with him — one, before the troubles began, when he was genuinely thrilled to talk to someone who knew him as something other than Little Buddy on the Island. We talked about The Good Guys and about a recent stage production he'd starred in, which I wish I'd seen, playing the Woody Allen role in Play It Again, Sam. He had done some other plays, he said, and people seemed so surprised to see him depart as much as he often did from his TV personnas. An approximate quote would be, "After Dobie, people thought all I could play was Maynard. And after Gilligan, people thought all I could play was Gilligan. Maybe if this thing [the Dobie revival] goes, I'll be back to people only thinking I can be Maynard again." Later, after rehearsals commenced, he wasn't worried about that happening.
The other conversation was in the midst of the arguing and unhappiness. I was eating alone in the commissary and he came over with a tray and asked if he could sit with me…and did I realize what a disaster the new Dobie pilot was turning out to be? I told him I hadn't read it and had nothing to do with it, but that I thought tossing away a Max Shulman script for Dobie Gillis was like…well, I forget what I said. Make up an analogy. Anyway, he went on and on about how television had changed, how it was run by people who didn't know anything, and how it was no longer his game. I think he had already moved away from Hollywood to West Virginia but if he hadn't, this was one of the things that prompted the relocation. It certainly convinced him that his days in the mainstream of television were over.
Thereafter, it was all guest appearances, lectures and autograph shows for Bob, plus I always heard he was very happy doing a radio program from his home state. I was never a huge fan of Gilligan's Island but I think it's great that its ongoing popularity in syndication gave him a fame he could ride for the rest of his life. Because he was good on the screen and he sure seemed to me like a nice man…at least when he wasn't threatening to murder Jimmie Komack.