Archive for July, 2011

Last coconut phone call for Sherwood Schwartz

July 13, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz (right) and the character he created, Gilligan, played by Bob Denver.


NEW YORK, July 13, 2011 — Spend enough years as a journalist on the same beat and it’s inevitable that many of the people you met along the way will die eventually.

And if you’ve been around as long as I have, you run the risk of beginning to sound like that scene in “The Sunshine Boys” where the only subject the elderly former comedy partners Lewis and Clark (George Burns and Walter Matthau in the 1975 movie) seem to talk about is the death of someone they knew.  Maybe you remember this pointless conversation — it went something like this: “Where’d he die?”  “In Variety.”

So I try and avoid these kinds of blog posts, but when Sherwood Schwartz died the other day at age 94, I somehow retrieved a dim memory of having lunch with him.  And since cobwebs were forming here on TV Howl (my last post was a while ago), I decided it was time to make a new contribution.

I’m pretty sure it was in May 2000 or thereabouts — at the Waldorf Astoria, in the ballroom, where many a TV industry event is held in New York.  Nick at Nite (or maybe it was TV Land) was putting on some sort of presentation of its then-new lineup of old shows.  The only record I possess of this event is a photo taken backstage of Mr. T and me.

One of the only other memories of this event: Tina Yothers, formerly of “Family Ties,” singing in a rock band.

Somehow, I was assigned to the same table as Sherwood Schwartz and his wife.  I dimly recall engaging him in conversation by asking him about his various shows — “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Dusty’s Trail.”  I was particularly interested in how he arrived at the number of characters for these shows — seven for both “Gilligan” and “Dusty’s Trail” and nine for “Brady Bunch.”

I don’t recall the details, but his answer indicated that those numbers were shrewdly chosen for their versatility and potential for myriad storylines.  For that’s one of the problems the producers of TV shows always come up against: Dreaming up enough stories to sustain the scenario they created through an entire season (which, in the days of “Gilligan’s Island,” was 36 episodes) or multiple seasons.

Judging by his age when he died, Schwartz must have been 82 or 83 when I met him that day.  He was an energetic guy — a funny little old man.  At one point during the presentation that was underway on-stage after lunch had been served and eaten, a “phone” made of coconut halves — like something the Professor would have devised on “Gilligan’s Island” — was delivered to our table.

A single spotlight then cut through the darkened ballroom and shone on Sherwood as the ringing of a phone was suddenly heard.  That was apparently Sherwood’s cue to answer this “phone” and speak into it.   And since the phone had a hidden microphone, Sherwood’s voice was heard over the ballroom’s speaker system saying something about “The Brady Bunch.”

I was delighted to have witnessed this “performance” from the chair right beside him.  All in all, it was a great day, having my photo taken with Mr. T and then sitting beside the creator of “Gilligan’s Island” as he took a call on a coconut telephone.  What more could a TV columnist ask for?

May he rest in peace.

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