Sherwood Schwartz dies at 94; ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘Brady Bunch’ creator
Sherwood Schwartz, the comedy writer and producer who created “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch,” which have remained two of the most enduringly popular TV series in worldwide syndication, died Tuesday morning. He was 94.
Schwartz, who began his more than six-decade career by writing gags for Bob Hope’s radio show in 1939, died of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his son Lloyd.
Schwartz once said he created “Gilligan’s Island,” which aired on CBS from 1964 to 1967, as an escape from his seven years on “The Red Skelton Show,” for which he served as head writer and won an Emmy in 1961.
There was nothing quite as escapist as the wacky tale of seven people on a small charter boat, the SS Minnow, who set out on a “three-hour tour” and wound up shipwrecked on an uncharted South Pacific Island.
Starring Bob Denver in the title role of the boat’s bumbling crew member, “Gilligan’s Island” famously featured the exasperated skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), the millionaire and his wife (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer), the professor (Russell Johnson), the naïve country girl (Dawn Wells) and the sexy movie star (Tina Louise).
Schwartz also wrote the lyrics for the show’s memorable theme song:
“Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip.
It started from this tropic port aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure,
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three-hour tour.”
Critics had a field day lambasting Schwartz’s shipwreck saga when it debuted.
“It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube,” wrote UPI’s Rick DuBrow.
“It is difficult for me to believe that ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was written, directed and filmed by adults,” wrote Terrence O'Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle.
It is “quite possibly the most preposterous situation comedy of the season,” wrote Jack Gould of the New York Times.
But the show’s very preposterousness struck a chord with millions of viewers.
For all its crude sight gags, low-brow humor and pratfalls, Schwartz viewed “Gilligan’s Island” as something more: It is, he proclaimed, “my version of a social microcosm, where seven people from various backgrounds had to learn to live together.”
In a 1965 TV Guide interview, Schwartz said he was not disheartened by the negative reviews — “only a bit angry with the lack of understanding of what was being attempted. Here are the same men who are forever saying: ‘For heaven’s sake, won’t somebody give us something other than the wife and the husband and the two children?’ ”
Four years later, Schwartz served up his own version of that television staple: the family sitcom.
The story of the marriage between a “lovely lady” with three daughters and “a man named Brady” with three sons, “The Brady Bunch” became TV’s first sitcom to feature a blended family. And its theme song featured lyrics again written by Schwartz.
The series, starring Robert Reed and Florence Henderson as Mike and Carol Brady, aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974. The Brady kids were played by Maureen McCormick, Barry Williams, Eve Plumb, Susan Olsen, Christopher Knight and Mike Lookinland. Ann B. Davis played Alice, the housekeeper.
Like “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch” was dismissed by the critics, and it never did as well as Schwartz’s gang of castaways in the ratings. But the idyllic suburban tale of Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Peter, Bobby, Mike, Carol and Alice took on a life of its own in endless syndicated reruns around the world, watched by succeeding generations.
“The Brady Bunch” also begat a 1972-74 Saturday morning animated series (“The Brady Kids”), a 1977 comedy-variety series (“The Brady Bunch Hour”), a 1981 TV movie (“The Brady Girls Get Married”), a 1981 sitcom (“The Brady Brides”), a 1988 TV movie (“A Very Brady Christmas”) and a 1990 hourlong dramatic series (“The Bradys.”)
There was even a stage production in the early 1990s, “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” which re-created episodes word-for-word, as well as “The Brady Bunch Movie” (1995), a hit spoof starring Shelley Long and Gary Cole that was followed by “A Very Brady Sequel” with Long and Cole (1996); and “The Brady Bunch in the White House,” a 2002 TV movie.
“Gilligan’s Island” likewise continued to air in reruns around the world and spawned two animated series, three TV movies and a 1992 stage musical, “Gilligan: The Musical,” for which Schwartz and his collaborator son, Lloyd, wrote the book.
Schwartz, who practically made a career out of the two shows, put little stock in what the critics had to say about his creations.
“I honestly think I could sit down and write a show tonight that the critics would love, and I know it would be canceled within four weeks,” Schwartz said in a 1990 interview with The Times. “I know what the critics love. We write and produce for people, not for critics.”
Born on Nov. 14, 1916, in Passaic, N.J., Schwartz received a bachelor’s degree from New York University and was working on his master’s degree in biological sciences at USC in 1939 when he unexpectedly abandoned his plan of becoming a doctor.
At the time, he was living with his older brother, Al, a comedy writer for “The Bob Hope Show,” then in its first year on radio. In need of money, Schwartz told his brother, “If I write some jokes, would you show them to Bob?”
As Schwartz told Jordan Young, author of the 1999 book “The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age”: “So I wrote some jokes, and he showed them to Bob, who liked them — and the last month of ‘The Bob Hope Show’ that first year, they used some of my material. And then [Hope] said to me, ‘Why don’t you come on the show?’ ”
After four years of writing for Hope’s radio show, Schwartz joined the Army and wound up writing for Armed Forces Radio Service in Hollywood, including the shows “Command Performance,” “Mail Call” and “Jubilee.”
After the war, he returned to radio, putting in stints on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Alan Young Show” and “The Beulah Show.”
He made his move to television in 1952, spending two years writing for Joan Davis’ situation comedy “I Married Joan.” In addition to “The Red Skelton Show,” Schwartz also wrote for the sitcom “My Favorite Martian” in the early 1960s.
Schwartz conceived the idea for the Brady series in 1965 after reading a brief news report that said nearly one-third of American households included at least one child from a previous marriage.
“I realized there was a sociological change going on in this country, and it prompted me to sit down to write a script about it,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
It took him more than three years to sell “The Brady Bunch,” a show whose cheery depiction of family life was, he said in another interview, “100% sincere.”
“A lot of people say television holds up a mirror to life, and that’s why you see all the drug busts and the killings and the seamier side of life,” he said in the 1990 Times interview. “I personally take the view that as a responsible producer, it’s not sufficient to portray only negative role models. I think it’s better to give an alternative. It’s not enough to say ‘no’ to drugs. What do you say ‘yes’ to?”
In addition to his son Lloyd, Schwartz is survived by his wife, Mildred; his two other sons, Dr. Donald Schwartz and Ross Schwartz; his daughter, Hope Juber; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral service for Schwartz will be held at noon Friday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary at 6001 W. Centinela Ave.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.