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A Shipwrecked Phenom

Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch,” two of the most omnipresent shows in syndicated TV, loves to tell the story of how he almost killed “Gilligan” 30 years ago with two ill-chosen words.

“It was in an early meeting at CBS with William Paley himself, the chairman of the board,” Schwartz recalled. “When he asked me to describe the show, I said it was a social microcosm.

“The man visibly blanched. He said, ‘I thought it was a comedy show.’ I said, ‘Mr. Paley, it’s a very funny microcosm.’ Very quickly. And I never used that phrase again.”

Now Schwartz’ shipwreck saga is an all-singing, all-dancing social microcosm: “Gilligan’s Island: The Musical” opened a few weeks ago at the Organic Theater in Chicago. Why? After 25 years of “Gilligan” reruns and 15 years of “Brady Bunch” repeats, Schwartz has found, to his delight, that his shows are still very much alive in the national consciousness.

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“Both shows are pervasive. They have left the land of television and become part of Americana,” said Schwartz, 76, who started his career as a comedy writer for “The Bob Hope Radio Show” and worked his way into television on shows such as “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Red Skelton Show” and “My Favorite Martian.”

To substantiate his somewhat lofty claim, Schwartz points out that both candidates in the recent presidential election referred to “The Brady Bunch” in their campaigns. President Bush, he says, used the show as an example of the type of wholesome family values he favors (as opposed to “The Simpsons”) and Bill Clinton often called his campaign workers “the Brady kids.”

Schwartz and his son, Lloyd, with whom he wrote the book for “Gilligan: The Musical,” also ticked off several recent instances in which Gilligan gags were used for laughs by others: a “Roseanne” episode in which Roseanne Arnold somehow managed to dress as Gilligan for Halloween; an episode of “Martin” in which comic Martin Lawrence says the two things he would take to a desert island are Ginger and Mary Ann.

(On the down side, Schwartz referred grimly to a Howard Stern TV sketch depicting the castaways as limb-munching cannibals, with Bob Denver and Dawn Wells of the original cast taking part, as “ugly and awful.”)

With all of this percolating in the national psyche, Schwartz and his son have continually looked for a new “Gilligan” product. In 1978, after four years of trying to sell the concept to resistant networks, NBC gave the green light to “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” which earned a whopping 54 share, according to Schwartz. Two more reunion movies followed.

“The Brady Bunch,"in its turn, spawned a short-lived variety series, “The Brady Bunch Hour,” the three-part movie “The Brady Girls Get Married” (which led to the short-lived series “The Brady Brides”), the ratings blockbuster “A Very Brady Christmas” and its short-lived series follow-up “The Bradys.”

After years of mixed results on television, the Schwartzes are ready for new fields of endeavor--namely, stage and the big screen. Schwartz senior said he and his son were not influenced by the cult success of “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” which had successful runs in Chicago, New York and at the Westwood Playhouse.

They are confident that the musical “Gilligan” will run for a year in Chicago, tour and eventually wind up on Broadway, despite local reviews ranging from mildly negative to scathing. Theater critic Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the show offers conclusive evidence of “the dumbing down of America.”

Critics don’t scare Schwartz, however, who has already endured some of the most withering barrages in the history of TV only to see his shows prosper in the ratings and endure in syndication.

Plans have already been laid for “The Brady Bunch Movie” to go before the cameras at Paramount in December or January. The $10-million feature will star a cast of unknown look-alikes for the original Bradys, circa 1973, rehearsing to participate in a Hollywood Bowl amateur contest.

“Gilligan’s Island: The Movie” is on hold at Columbia as the studio wrangles with copyright holder Ted Turner for cable rights and so forth. When the negotiations are finally settled, Schwartz says, he hopes to see the film cast with major stars. His wish list includes John Goodman as the Skipper, Martin Short as Gilligan, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ginger, Steve Martin as Mr. Howell and Dan Aykroyd as the Professor.

Factoring out potential critical barbs, Schwartz says he is confident about the success of these projects because his sitcoms have clearly outgrown the small screen and become a strange part of American life. “They used to call me Pop Schwartz,” he cracks. “Now I’m pop culture.”

“Gilligan’s Island” airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on KTTV.

“The Brady Bunch” airs Sundays at 8 and 8:30 a.m and Saturdays at 3 and 3:30 p.m on KTLA. It airs weekdays at 1:30 p.m. on TBS and at 2 p.m. on KUSI. “A Very Brady Christmas” airs Saturday at 6 p.m. on KTLA


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