‘Gilligan’s Island’: Jim Backus Would Often Ask Castmates to Lunch, Bail on Check

by Josh Lanier

It’s a basic rule of economics: If you want to stay rich, spend other people’s money. But it seems that Jim Backus, who played the wealthy Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, took that axiom a bit too far.

Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on the show, told Esquire magazine in 2013 that the actor would often invite her and other castmates out for lunch. But he’d conveniently always forget his wallet.

“I knew the least was Jim Backus [Thurston Howell],” Wells said of the Gilligan’s Island cast. “But I can tell you this: He was a skinflint! He would always ask Natalie, who played Mrs. Howell, and I out to lunch. “Let me take you girls out to lunch.” We’d go to lunch and he’d say, “Oh, I don’t have my credit card.” Somehow we’d always pick it up. At the end of the year, Natalie said, “Jim, here’s a bill for taking us to lunch all year.'”

And it’s not as if he was short on cash. Gilligan’s Island was a popular television show. And Backus was a very successful actor, piling up hundreds of credits in television and movies. His supposed net worth at the time of his death in 1989 was $5 million, according to CelebrityNetworth.com.

It’s even more ridiculous to realize Backus was one of the highest-paid actors on the show in the early days.

In fact, producers didn’t want to cast him as Thurston Howell III at first because he was too expensive. He’d already starred in I Married Joan, The Jim Backus Show, and The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. Adding a true-to-life star to the cast would balloon the budget, MeTV reported. So, creator Sherwood Schwartz trimmed the part down and prepared to find another actor for the part. But he got lucky Backus was available and a friend that was willing to take the smaller role in the pilot.

Wells Had Strong Opinions About the Entire Cast

Wells spoke her mind about her castmates often. Like saying Backus was cheap, she enjoyed passing out behind-the-scenes gossip.

For instance, in 2016, she told Forbes which cast member she had a crush on. Producers of Gilligan’s Island considered linking characters romantically on the show, and Wells broke down her options.

“Gilligan you don’t think of as a romantic partner,” Well said. “Alan [Hale, the Skipper] was more like a father. But the professor had everything: good looks, a sense of humor, was very intelligent. Bob [Denver] and I were really close friends. So was Alan [Hale]. He could pick up Tina [Louise] in one arm, me in the other at the same time, he was so strong. Ms. Howell and I also became really good friends. The one I was least close to was Jim Backus.”

Wells died on Dec. 30 of complications from COVID-19, the Hollywood Reporter said. She was 82.