November 14, 1916, is the birthdate of television writer and producer Sherwood Schwartz. Though his name is unlikely to be recognized by many of them, tens of millions of Americans tuned in regularly to his shows, the most memorable of which, “Gilligan’s Island,” ran for only three seasons a half-century ago but retains iconic status among generations of viewers.
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Sherwood Schwartz was born November 14, 1916, in Passaic, New Jersey, to Herman Schwartz, a grocer, and his wife, Rose. Sherwood graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, New York, and then New York University.
Schwartz’s aspiration was to study medicine, but at the time, Jews were subject to quotas. To strengthen his candidacy as an applicant, he began a master’s program in biology in 1938 at the University of Southern California. In Los Angeles, he could live rent-free with his brother Al, a law-school graduate turned radio comedy writer.
At the time, Al Schwartz was writing for “The Bob Hope Show,” then in its first year. His brother, short on income, asked Al to show Hope some jokes he had written. Hope bought them, and then bought some more, before offering the aspiring medical student a regular job. Thus did humanity lose out on a healer of bodies and souls, but gain the creator of “Gilligan, the skipper too, the millionaire and his wife.”
Schwartz wrote for the Hope show for four years, and before moving to “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” on radio, served as a writer during World War II with the Armed Forces Network.
By 1952, Schwartz had made the leap to television, writing for “I Married Joan” and “The Red Skelton Show,” where he won an Emmy for his work as head writer. He also had a spell at for “My Favorite Martian,” which may have been the perfect preparation, in intellectual terms, for “Gilligan,” which first aired in 1964.
The 30-minute sitcom concerned a group of seven – five travelers and a crew of two – who headed out on a three-hour pleasure cruise but ended up stranded on an “uncharted desert isle” after encountering a storm.
The title character (Bob Denver) is a well-meaning but thoroughly incompetent first mate (to Alan Hale’s Skipper), whose bumbling foils every opportunity the group – which also includes a pampered millionaire couple, a brainy scientist, a sexpot actress and an innocent farm girl – has to be rescued.
In 1995 Schwartz told Time magazine, with a straight face, that he had known that, “by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications.” In the same vein, “Eventually, the Israelis are going to have to learn to live with the Arabs. We have one world, and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was my way of saying that.”
When executives at CBS objected that the back story to “Gilligan” was too complicated for a 30-minute sitcom, Schwartz had the idea of providing all the background viewers needed through the chantey-like theme song, which he co-wrote with George Wyle.
Critics hated the show (“A more inept, moronic or humorless show has never appeared on the home tube,” wrote Rick DuBrow of United Press International), but audiences went for it, and “Gilligan’s Island,” though it was canceled after three seasons, went on to spawn a slew of sequels including “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.”
Schwartz’s next creation was “The Brady Bunch,” which ran for five seasons, beginning in 1969 – and about which the less said the better.
Schwartz knew that highbrows looked down on his shows, but he was proud of them. Late in life, he told an interviewer how he had produced 700 episodes of his various programs.
“Seven hundred shows with no murders, no rapes, no drug busts, no bombs, no hookers,” he said. "Everybody slept with his own wife, and yet these shows were allowed to appear on the networks.”
Sherwood Schwartz died in his sleep, a happy man, on July 12, 2011, at age 94.