Fans sending in items to a network in the hopes of saving a show is nothing new. For instance, a fan letter-writing campaign saved Star Trek from an early cancellation. But what happened with Gilligan’s Island was something much different. People were writing in and demanding that someone save the castaways.
Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz told the story to the Television Academy Foundation. It began with a phone call after the show had been on the air for a little more than two months.
“I get a call from the Coast Guard, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, and he said can I come down to see you,” Schwartz said. “… He came in and said ‘I didn’t want to tell you over the phone because I didn’t think you’d believe me, but here read these,’ and he tosses about a dozen or 18, I don’t know, a batch of telegrams on my desk.”
Each telegram begged the U.S. Coast Guard to help get Gilligan — and the Skipper too — get off of that island. They believed the show was real. This wasn’t a joke to them — even if there was a laugh track.
“There are telegrams written in earnest,” Schwartz said. “Now, who did they think was laughing at what was happening to these people? Where do they think the music came from and the commercials? I mean the television has such power. … There’s a belief factor that’s incredible in television it’s not true in any other medium. Scary, really scary.”
Schwartz said producers must be aware of that power and use it responsibly.
“That’s the point of making TV,” he said. “I think we have to be careful because there are people out there who believe what you’re telling them.”
‘Gilligan’s Island’ Went ‘Larger Than Life’
One way, it seems, producers combated this problem is to go bigger. Make the show impossible to misinterpret.
Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann, said in 2013 that she enjoyed the big, lavish dream sequences. In particular, Mary Ann would use her radio soap opera to deal with her fears in Gilligan’s Island.
“We always liked the dream sequences. Being a cockney girl was kind of fun. The plots were incredibly stupid, but that makes me laugh. The entire time the show was on, I thought, ‘this is kind of corny,’ but you don’t have time to think about it, and you don’t have time to watch the other shows because you’re working. But now the show is on Me-TV, and I thought, ‘this is funny!’ How we’re all so larger than life, it is funny.”
The antics were so over the top that it would be hard to mistake them for anything but fiction.
We can hope.