‘Gilligan’s Island’ Creator Sherwood Schwartz Revealed How Show Captured Real World Issues

by Liz Holland

“Gilligan’s Island” tells an interesting story of seven castaways. A three-hour tour near Honolulu turns into disaster after the boat runs into a typhoon. Suddenly, there’s seven stranded passengers on a small piece of land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. They’re forced to work together to find a way off the island. However, they repeatedly fail to do so. The show only ran for three seasons from 1964 to 1967, but it remains one of the best known television shows. While many people may think the idea for the show sprung from the deserted island concept, the inspiration from the show actually came from real-world issues. The show’s writer, Sherwood Schwartz broke it down in a 1996 interview. 

Schwartz says of Gilligan’s Island, “It was a social microcosm of 7 very different people. Who, because of what happened to them, were forced to learn to live together. Which remains the biggest problem on earth today. I mean, beyond all else. Whites and Blacks, Jews and Arabs, North Koreans and South Koreans. You look around the world, and somebody is fighting with somebody.”

The show’s creator says the division of the real world is what inspired him to write the comedy.  “The island was a metaphor for the world. These 7 people came from absolutely different backgrounds,” Schwartz said. I mean, where would a guy like Thurston Howell III ever sit down and have lunch with Gilligan? There’s no way! Where would a movie star find an hour to talk about things with a professor? It just doesn’t happen, unless it’s forced to happen. Many people think I started with a deserted island, I didn’t. I started with a philosophical point of view.”

Sherwood Schwartz Almost Lost ‘Gilligan’s Island’ In a Meeting With CBS

Sherwood Schwartz remembers that the inspiration behind the show almost cost him the project completely. When he met with William Paley, who was an incredibly important figure in radio and television, he didn’t choose his words as carefully as he maybe should have. At the time, Paley was a pioneer in the transition of media from radio to TV, and the head of CBS. “As a matter of fact, [I] almost lost the show before it got off the ground because I referred to the show in a meeting with William Paley,” Schwartz recalls. 

“[He was] a very important man who was in Washington half the time deciding on the fate of radio or television or whatever was happening. At that time, he had to pass judgement, even on pilots, to go into the networks for the following year. The first thing I said in the meeting was that ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was a social microcosm. He visibly blanched, (went pale) and said ‘My God, I thought it was a comedy.’” Schwartz remembers with a laugh,  “And I said, ‘It’s a funny microcosm Mr. Paley!’ And [after that] I was determined to never use a 3 syllable word again when referring to a comedy show.”

The show was picked up but put in an unpopular time slot. Despite the circumstances, the show saw huge success, which enabled Schwartz to go on to write other iconic shows like “The Brady Bunch.”