Appreciation: Sherwood Schwartz, 1916-2011
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Sherwood Schwartz, who died Tuesday at the age of 94, had a long and fruitful run in radio and television before he created ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘The Brady Bunch,’ the shows that earned him a place in the history of TV and the life of the people. To not know these series — to not understand the expression ‘three-hour tour’ or what it means to prefer a Ginger to a Mary Ann, or the deep wells of frustration contained in the phrase ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ — or to be able to sing their theme songs, each co-written by Schwartz, is to be in some small but real way culturally illiterate.
These shows crown a career that began in radio, in 1938, when Schwartz backed into a job writing for ‘The Bob Hope Show,’ on which his brother Al was working (Al Schwartz later wrote for ‘Gilligan’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’); he continued on radio with ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ before moving into television with ‘I Married Joan’ (a sort of ‘I Love Lucy'-lite that costarred future ‘Gilligan’ player Jim Backus), ‘The Red Skelton Show,’ for which he won an Emmy, and ‘My Favorite Martian.’
Then came ‘Gilligan.’ There is something brilliantly strange and reductive about ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ which premiered in 1964 and was the first series to bear Schwartz’s name as creator. With its cast of symbolic characters — the Skipper, the Professor, the Movie Star, the Millionaire and His Wife — trapped together in a small, inescapable space, it might with a subtle shift of emphasis become a play by Ionesco or Sartre. (It is impossible to think long about ‘Lost’ without running aground on ‘Gilligan’s Island.’) There is nothing vaguely real about this much-visited uncharted desert isle; its seven stranded castaways are as fixed as if they were characters in commedia dell’arte, and so completely did the actors fill up their roles that, for most of them, there was nowhere to go afterward.
‘The Brady Bunch,’ which ran from 1969 to 1974, was the longest-lived of Schwartz’s creations, a blended-family sitcom about ‘a lovely lady,’ ‘a man named Brady’ and their meshed respective broods. Widow and widower they were created, in the fashion of the time, but it was a show that spoke to an age of divorce and remarriage. The conceit was not entirely original — two similar films, ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ and ‘With Six You Get Egg Roll,’ were released the year before ‘Brady’ bowed — but as in ‘Gilligan,’ Schwartz rendered the concept elemental and iconic, even as it felt familiar and familial: the females versus the males, the blonds against the brunets. Like ‘Gilligan,’ it begins as a story of strangers living suddenly at close quarters, and like that show it raised questions about sex it would never have thought to address but upon which viewers were bound to speculate. It was the signal family comedy of its time.
None of Schwartz’s subsequent inventions did as well, or well at all — most lasted a season or less — although I am of an age to have watched some of them avidly. These include ‘It’s About Time’ (1966), a kind of temporal ‘Gilligan’ in which two astronauts are marooned in a Stone Age inhabited by Joe E. Ross and Imogene Coca, and ‘Dusty’s Trail’ (1973), a sort of ‘Gilligan'-out-West, with Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, again in the lead.
But if Schwartz never replicated the success of his two great hits, those series continued to serve him well over the years, being reshaped into TV movies, cartoon series, stage plays and big-screen features. ‘The Brady Bunch’ was refigured, strangely, both as a variety show (‘The Brady Bunch Hour,’ 1976) and a straight drama (‘The Bradys,’ 1990); more successful were the 1990s features ‘The Brady Bunch Movie’ and ‘A Very Brady Sequel,’ which honored the original by lampooning it. (‘Gilligan’s Island’ is currently in the pipeline for a theatrical remake.)
Indeed, to love these shows now as an adult is to some unavoidable degree to love them ironically. Suggesting more than they ever state, they are ripe for speculation and parody, and so they go on and on in the culture, as ideas, even as the series themselves rerun in the world. Somewhere right now someone is watching an episode, and laughing.
— Robert Lloyd