Bob Denver

Bumbling star of 'Gilligan's Island'

The slapstick comedy of Gilligan's Island made the American series a memorable part of television's so-called Golden Age, and Bob Denver's portrayal of the title character - the bumbling first mate on a sightseeing ship caught in a storm and wrecked on the shore of an uncharted Pacific island - was its central ingredient.

Most of the stories revolved around the attempts by the surviving passengers and crew of the SS Minnow to escape but being thwarted by Gilligan's unwavering ineptness. On other occasions, the castaways would have a problem and were swept off into a dream sequence relating to it. Gilligan - never referred to by his first name - was the most frequent dreamer, imagining himself to be Lord Admiral Gilligan fighting off pirates, Secret Agent 014, a goofy vampire hunted by Inspector Sherlock, and Dr Jekyll turning into Mr Hyde when people around him talk about food.

Although the 1964 pilot episode was shot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the series (1964-67) was made on a backlot at CBS's Hollywood studios, where a lagoon was specially built. Denver starred with Alan Hale Jnr, as the skipper who referred to his first mate as "little buddy". The sitcom's creator, Sherwood Schwartz, considered them to be a comedy double act in the vein of George Burns and Gracie Allen, adding:

People think it's easy to fall down and get hit in the head with a coconut. And, every time, he'd find a different way to do that.

Like The Beverly Hillbillies, a sitcom about country bumpkins who strike oil and move to a plush Beverly Hills neighbourhood, Gilligan's Island was panned by the critics, who pointed out the implausible storylines, but loved by viewers - so much so that its 98 episodes are still screened around the world.

Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1935, Denver graduated in political science from Loyola University, Los Angeles, where he was house manager for its theatre, then spent three years working as a postal clerk, a high-school history and maths teacher and a sports coach until finding regular acting work.

He made his film début in the military musical A Private's Affair (1959), but his breakthrough came when he landed the role of Maynard G. Krebs, a bongos-playing, goatee-bearded, sweatshirt-wearing, work-shy beatnik, opposite Dwayne Hickman's title character - the average, all-American boy - in the television sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63). It was one of the first shows to portray the world through teenagers' eyes, with Denver improvising the mannerisms of those from the beat generation because the programme's writers knew little about them.

Gilligan's Island cemented the actor's fame and he revived the character of Gilligan by voicing two cartoon series, The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-77) and Gilligan's Planet (1982-83), and returning to the screen as him in three television films (1978-81), as well as an episode of Baywatch (1992) and the feature-film parody Miss Cast Away (2004).

Although he starred in three other sitcoms - as Rufus Butterworth in The Good Guys (1968-70), the title character in Dusty's Trail (1973) and Junior in Far Out Space Nuts (1975-76) - they were less successful and Denver seemed unable to escape his most famous roles. Later, he resurrected Maynard G. Krebs, in middle age, in the television film Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis (1988) and became a regular guest at Gilligan's Island fan conventions, wearing the red shirt and white sailor's hat that were his character's trademark.

On the Broadway stage, the actor was praised by one critic for his "genuine, clown-like wistfulness" when he took over from Woody Allen to star in Play It Again, Sam (Broadhurst Theatre, 1970).

In 1990, after many years in Las Vegas, Denver and his fourth wife, Dreama Perry, moved to Princeton, West Virginia, and both began broadcasting a rock'n'roll oldies radio show, Weekend With Denver and Denver, from the basement of their house last year. His autobiography, Gilligan, Maynard & Me, was published in 1993.

Anthony Hayward

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