Jim Backus' Gilligan's Island Casting Caused Last Minute Rewrites

Jim Backus' first major acting gig was playing a snotty millionaire named Dexter Hayes on the 1940 radio serial "Society Girl." This was to kick off a decades-long career in radio, film, and television, wherein Backus invented multiple indelible characters that remain a part of the pop fabric to this very day. He appeared on "The Jack Benny Program" and even briefly had his own TV show, "The Jim Backus Show" in 1957. He famously played the voice of Mr. Magoo from 1949 until his death in 1989, and starred in "Rebel Without a Cause." He was adept at playing clueless weirdos and self-absorbed egotists, although he had a great deal of comedic range. Be sure to listen to his hit comedy single "Delicious!" sometime. He elicits laughter without saying anything. I could list more credits, but we'd be here all day; Backus starred in over 100 films and shorts, and several dozen TV shows. 

One of Backus' most famous roles was Thurston Howell III on Sherwood Schwartz's 1964 sitcom "Gilligan's Island." Mr. Howell was, like many of Backus' characters, an arrogant millionaire who, like all wealthy people, thinks he knows everything. Even though his character was stuck on a deserted island, he still pursued luxury and was often seen drinking cocktails on a lounge chair. When "Gilligan's" started up, Backus was indisputably the show's biggest star. 

Indeed, when Sherwood Schwartz was interviewed by the Television Foundation in 1997, he described the early days of the show and how he had a little hut on a beach where he could write. He admitted that when Backus was cast as Mr. Howell, he had to write more lines for the character. You don't cast a comedian with Jim Backus' stature and not give him dozens of jokes.

Enlarging Mr. Howell

Schwartz was describing the location shoot for the "Gilligan's Island" pilot episode, which took him and the cast to Kauai. When the show was up and running, production moved to CBS' Radford Studios in Studio City, California, but certain exteriors were actually shot in Hawai'i. Schwartz recalled having to ship a boat over from Oahu while he frantically produced new pages to adjust for his new star. He said:

"We shot the pilot there, and I had a little hut on the beach where I was rewriting the script to more stuff for Jim Backus. Because I now had him, and I had to enlarge his part. Which I had promised, and I did it." 

The pilot episode for "Gilligan's Island," as the show's fans know, was very different from the eventual series. While Bob Denver (Gilligan), Alan Hale (The Skipper), Jim Backus, and Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) all appeared, the original cast also included Kit Smythe and Nancy McCarthy as a pair of secretaries named Ginger and Bunny, as well as John Gabriel as a high school teacher. The original Ginger was a very different character than the glamorous movie star version of Ginger eventually played by Tina Louise. Bunny and the teacher were eventually replaced by Mary-Ann (Dawn Wells) and the Professor (Russell Johnson). The original pilot didn't air until a special anniversary event in 1992. 

Backus continued to play Mr. Howell in various "Gilligan's" spinoffs for years, including the 1981 TV movie "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island," and the animated series "Gilligan's Planet" in 1982. Yes, it was real.