Following Shout Factory’s recent release of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in a complete-series DVD box set, Reveal Shot presents Part II of an interview with television historians Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, authors of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television” (expanded 2nd ed., 2011). Castleman is an attorney at Boston law firm Michienzie & Sawin LLC, while Podrazik is the curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Read the first part of the interview here.
Reveal Shot: I wanted to zero in on Dwayne Hickman, briefly, in terms of what he brought to this role. Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Dobie Gillis.
Castleman: One of the things I liked about him is that — and again, up to this point, teenagers were usually portrayed as goofy, crazy kids — Dwayne Hickman portrayed Dobie as an intelligent guy. Level-headed, if you will. And I admired that. It gave him some gravitas, in the sense that he made you feel like you would feel in a given situation. You don’t feel like a goofball; you feel like you’re a serious guy who’s trying to make his way.
Podrazik: Everyone likes to find the character that’s an everyman, that’s identifiable. Dwayne Hickman managed to be a very accessible, sensible, believable, sympathetic character. You knew he was never going to win, but he didn’t come across as a mope. He came across as someone who picked himself up, dusted himself off, and would start all over again.
Castleman: And even though he had that burning ambition, to be successful, to be rich, to have the girl, to have the car, it wasn’t over the top. He wasn’t like Thalia Menninger. He was still, at heart, a good guy.
Podrazik: Just the timbre of his voice helped. He was not Walter Denton from “Our Miss Brooks,” with a squeaky voice [imitates Richard Crenna’s high voice as the character] like that. He was someone you’d want to have a conversation with. You mentioned breaking the fourth wall; when he did that, he would be saying, this is what’s on my mind. This is what I’m trying to do, this is my scheme this week to have all my dreams come true. Uh oh, here comes Maynard to puncture my balloon again.
Reveal Shot: Turning to Bob Denver. One of the things I noticed in your reviews of his subsequent roles is that when Denver was in a supporting role, as he is here, it’s fine, but when he had to carry a series, as in “Gilligan’s Island,” he wasn’t as effective. What made him successful in this supporting role?
Castleman: Well, just his great quirkiness. Again, thinking of the time frame, he would’ve appeared far more quirky back then. I always loved how he would literally be allergic to the word “work.” It was really funny, and it certainly went against what would’ve been considered the correct concept of American society. Goodness knows where that specific thing came from — it might’ve been Denver or the writers or some collaboration, but it’s a great thing. He’s a wonderful sidekick, and again I think the analogy to Art Carney/Ed Norton and “The Honeymooners” is apt, and you can say that in effect that Norton is a more interesting character than Ralph Kramden, and Maynard is a more interesting character than Dobie, but could there be an “Ed Norton Show?” I don’t know.
Podrazik: … One of my favorite episodes was the “Time Capsule” episode, in which Maynard was really distressed at the state of the world.1 Why bother with a time capsule when everything’s going to be blown up? Maynard could credibly say what might have been niggling in the back of the minds of more proper folks, like, boy, this really is a scary time. But he would actually say it. And that really worked well in contrast to everyone else.
When Bob Denver turned around and became the lead, in something like “Gilligan’s Island” or some of his other roles — and maybe I’ve softened a little on this as time has gone by — as long as some of the other characters took the lead on a particular story, he was good popping in with his “Gilliganisms,” but if it’s all Gilligan all the time (or if it had been all Maynard, all the time), that could be a bit wearying. And that’s why comic relief characters are such golden opportunities, because you can make so much without having that character carry the whole story.
Reveal Shot: I wanted to talk about Frank Faylen, because years ago, when we discussed “Leave It To Beaver,” you both talked about how, while the kids on the show were pretty realistic, the adults were not. So I wanted to address how good Faylen was here, playing this sarcastic and always exasperated father.
Castleman: I would like to compare him favorably to one of my least favorite characters of the ’50s, which was Chester Riley, at least the William Bendix version. I always hated Bendix’s version, because he seemed like such a bag of hot air.
Frank Faylen played what Chester Riley should have been. He’s a very believable dad, a very believable small business operator, a very believable World War II vet who’s in complete conflict with a new generation that he doesn’t understand and makes no sense to him. He’s exasperated, but he’s able to stay human at the same time.
Podrazik: And the marriage between Herbert and Winnie Gillis (Florida Friebus) is credible. They’re basically running a small business together. And Faylen was absolutely someone you could see putting in the long hours. There are people who look back at their youth and say, “I walked 27 miles to school.” I believe Herbert really would have. He was the type that would work hard, who had a strong belief in the American ethic — that was the character as written. And Faylen pulled it off so well.
And yes, while you definitely followed the teens on the show, as a viewer you could say, I don’t mind going to the adult subplots here, because they’re really good subplots.
Reveal Shot: What about Sheila James? There was a character (Zelda Gilroy) who could have been really annoying, and yet she seemed to find a way to straddle the line between that and bringing out the more endearing aspects of that character.
Castleman: One of the things I’ve been thinking about her, with all the attention these days on “The Big Bang Theory,” that show has always spotlighted the nerdy guys that we’re familiar with, but it now finally has some nerdy girls, too. They deserve equal time. You’re used to just seeing the gorgeous sexpot, who may be funny, but is going to be gorgeous. But let the other side have a say, too. And I think that’s the case with Sheila James as Zelda.
Zelda Gilroy certainly is a believable type. Yes, certainly it’s bordering on slapstick a little bit, with the mannerisms and so forth, but I always enjoyed her, and found her really interesting to watch.
Podrazik: And, not that they constructed series back then to have these grand story arcs, but you knew that’s who Dobie should be with. Despite all of his illusions, and his pursuit of the most gorgeous girl on campus, it was Zelda that would ground him.2 And also, that was staying within his social class; she was not only who he should be with, but she was also who it was appropriate for him to be with, in the eyes of society. So of course when they did the reunion movie [“Bring Me The Head of Dobie Gillis” (1988)]3, they were married.
Reveal Shot: As far as some of the other supporting actors, I’ll just let you comment on anybody else you like — Tuesday Weld, Stephen Franken, and so on.
Castleman: Well, once you get to that level, you’re talking more about characters that more border on caricature. And that’s okay. I love Stephen Franken. Again, I focused on him far more than Warren Beatty during his brief time there. I thought he was very funny, I loved the way his character made fun of the wealthy — which is certainly a long-standing tradition — but they did it very well. I got a big kick out of it. He and the woman who played his mother, Doris Packer, who was also perfect.
Podrazik: I would underscore that of the rich folks, I very much enjoyed Chatsworth’s mom, because she did have her moments of insight. In one episode, she managed to get the Gillis family into the rich circles, because she wanted to demonstrate [to Chatsworth] that there wasn’t something inherently better about [the Gillises], that if they were exposed to, and had, “oodles and oodles of money,” as Thalia might say, they wouldn’t act all that differently from the way the Osbornes act.4
Reveal Shot: Well, I guess I’ll close with my “what if” question: Given that CBS greenlighted “Dobie Gillis” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” what kind of trajectory do you think their sitcom development would have taken if they hadn’t been sidetracked by the success of the rural shows like “The Beverly Hillbilies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres?”
Castleman: Sure — you look back on it now, and you say, geez: “Dobie Gillis.” “Dick Van Dyke.” What a great string here — if two makes a string.
I mean, look — that stuff was cutting edge, and it takes time to percolate. Obviously tapping into that rural stream, although you look back at “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction” now and kind of shudder and sigh and say, oh my — that kind of thing was far more mainstream, and it certainly did well for CBS’s bottom line for most of the ’60s. So I can’t really fault them on that level.
Podrazik: I started looking at the schedule grids to see what else was on, and you know, “Dobie Gillis” wasn’t entirely alone on the CBS schedule as a non-rural comedy. They had “The Danny Thomas Show” — hardly rural, and depending on how you want to start characterizing them, there’s “My Favorite Martian” (starting in 1963-64) and others…
And I think the difference, if you’re looking at “Dick Van Dyke” and “Dobie Gillis,” since you’re coupling those two, you have to remember that “Dick Van Dyke” came from Carl Reiner basically sitting down and writing the first season (1961-62)5. So this was something that was very rich, in disciplined text, before they had filmed one moment of the show. And again, “Dobie Gillis” comes from someone [Max Shulman] who was a short story writer, who wrote for feature films, so it had a richer literary pedigree than shows that started out — and shamelessly so — as cartoons.
In its second season, “Dobie Gillis,” squaring off against ABC’s “Wyatt Earp” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on NBC 6, continued to be a solid Tuesday night performer for CBS, and was an easy choice for renewal as the network made plans for 1961-62. That fall, ABC tried its own comedy in the Tuesday 8:30 p.m. time slot — a cartoon version of “Amos n’ Andy” (from that show’s creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) in the form of a fox and a bear. It flopped, while “Dobie Gillis” usually finished in a comfortable second place against “Hitchcock.” By March 1962, however, CBS was already reported to be contemplating a revamp that would include moving “Dobie” to Wednesday nights.
For its fourth and final season (1962-63), “Dobie Gillis” was seen on Wednesdays at 8:30, against the last half-hour of “The Virginian” on NBC and ABC’s TV version of the Bing Crosby film “Going My Way,” starring Gene Kelly.7 By this time, “Dobie Gillis” was the only television series being produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, which was still reeling from the millions of dollars that had been swallowed up by its feature film “Cleopatra.”
In February 1963, press reports indicated that the “Dobie” had been marked for cancellation by CBS. Though the ratings had declined to some degree, Chicago Tribune TV critic Larry Wolters also reported in his April 28, 1963 column that a number of half-hour series were axed across all of the networks because “some cost-savings could be effected by replacing them with hour-long entries.” He noted that 12 new shows already slated for 1963-64 were 60 minutes long.8
The show immediately became one of the most prized offerings in syndication, and eventually gained a new legion of fans during a long run as part of Nickelodeon’s Nick At Nite schedule.
— David B. Wilkerson