‘Gilligan’s Island’: Jim Backus Was Convinced to Take Role of Mr. Howell Despite Never Seeing a Script

by Will Shepard

Jim Backus enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, one that spanned from 1948 to 1992. He is likely best know for his role as Mr. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island.

However, when he decided to take on the role of Mr. Howell, there was an interesting side note about it. According to the show’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz, he took the role without seeing the script.

During an interview with Emmy TV Legends in 2010, Schwartz talks about this fact. He noted that the only person he wanted to play Mr. Howell in Gilligan’s Island was Backus. It didn’t matter who else CBS wanted him to interview, Schwartz was dead set on his actor.

“Jim [Backus] was a money problem,” Schwartz recalled. “But that was CBS’s problem, not mine. They asked me to test different people, and I did. I interviewed a lot of people, but I said, ‘It’s Jim Backus.'”

The show’s creator continued, “They said, ‘He’s a star, he’s expensive.’ I said, ‘He’s worth it.’ Because they wouldn’t let me sign Jim, I wrote the script minimizing that part because I couldn’t find anybody else to play it.

“You know, you have to listen to the network. They’re putting up the money,” Schwartz explained. But that wasn’t going to stop the Gilligan’s Island creator from getting Backus. “They deserved to be listened to, but I shrank the part.”

Sherwood Schwartz Convinced Jim Backus to Join “Gilligan’s Island” Without Seeing the Script

He used a hilarious comparison, “Feeling I had to go with a second banana, who was not a top banana.” Then he began talking more about Backus’ other commitment.

“They (CBS) were willing to give him more money, but he was signed to another pilot. Until that time ran out, he could not deal with a second pilot,” Schwartz said of his actor.

“Well,” Schwartz said. “One day, I get a call from CBS – the other pilot didn’t sell. So, I called Jim, and he was an old friend. I said, ‘Jim, how would you like to be on this new show I’m doing?'”

Schwartz delved into the story about hiring Backus for Gilligan’s Island without him reading a script. “He said, ‘Fine, send me the script.’ I said, ‘I can’t send you the script.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Because if you read it, you won’t take the part.’

“He said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I didn’t think you were available, and it’s much more minor than you would be in the series. So, I don’t want you to read this, and you won’t like it.’ He said, ‘So, you want me to sign a contract to star in a show without reading the script?'”

Schwartz explained that he simply told Jim “yeah,” and that was all the Gilligan’s Island star needed to hear. Backus decided that he was on board.

That is an incredible way to sell someone on a project. Imagine a company approaching you, and you ask for the job description, but the company tells you that you can’t see it. So, naturally, you ask, why not? To which they tell you that you won’t like what you see.

It is important to know that the two had a great relationship already built. Consequently, it meant that the two important pieces of Gilligan’s Island trusted each other completely. Neither of them would have ever second-guessed the situation. More importantly, in the end, it worked out beautifully.