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Obituaries

Bob Denver, 70; Actor Best Known for 'Dobie Gillis,' 'Gilligan's Island' Roles

September 07, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Bob Denver, who shot to fame on television in the late 1950s playing beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" but achieved enduring comedic cult status in the '60s starring as the lovably inept first mate on "Gilligan's Island," has died. He was 70.

Denver, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery earlier this year, died Friday of complications from treatment he was receiving for cancer at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said his agent, Mike Eisenstadt.

A graduate of Loyola University in Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University), Denver earned a degree in political science.

He had worked as a part-time teacher, sports coach and mailman and had five college productions and a small part in the 1959 Sal Mineo film "A Private's Affair" behind him before landing his role on "Dobie Gillis," the popular situation comedy starring Dwayne Hickman.

As Maynard, the bongo-playing, goateed, sweatshirt-wearing beatnik, Denver was the polar opposite of Hickman's crew-cut, buttoned-down "typical" American teenager, Dobie.

"He and I were opposites on the screen and in real life in many ways, because I was an extension of Dobie and he was an extension of Maynard," Hickman told The Times on Tuesday. "Despite our differences, we had great mutual respect, and we really had a good relationship."

Hickman, who met Denver when they were both students at Loyola, considers his former colleague an "underrated comedian," whose catch phrases as Maynard included "You rang?" and screeching out the word "Work!" whenever that frightening prospect reared its head.

"He had a wonderful sense of comedy, great timing, and he had sweet personality on the screen," Hickman said. "I loved working with him. I was proud to be his straight man.

"One of my favorite lines was, 'Maynard, go home and feed your iguana.' He said, 'He don't need me, Dobe; he can open the refrigerator door himself.' And then I'd look at him like Jack Benny."

"Dobie Gillis" aired from 1959 to 1963. But it was Denver's next sitcom outing as one of the castaways on "Gilligan's Island" that made him an enduring cult favorite.

The series ran on CBS from 1964 to 1967 but has aired continuously in syndication since then.

Sherwood Schwartz, the show's creator, said Denver was a "remarkable actor, because he was not really a comedian -- he was an actor who could do comedy."

"He was, first of all, a good friend of mine; he wasn't just an actor who worked on my show," Schwartz told The Times on Tuesday. "He had come from a second banana position on 'Dobie Gillis.' Even though he was a second banana, I understand he got more [fan] mail than the first banana. So in my show he was the top banana. He and the skipper, Alan Hale, were the duo who really made the big impression.

"It was like Burns and Allen and any twosome really," he said. "They fed off each other with physical stuff and vocal."

Who, he said, can forget the skipper affectionately referring to Gilligan as "little buddy"?

"People think it's easy to fall down and get hit in the head with a coconut. And every time he'd find a different way to do that," Schwartz said of Denver's acting skill.

The performer himself once attributed the enduring popularity of "Gilligan's Island" to its "silliness" and physical comedy.

"People thank me for giving them a break from life," he said.

Denver, who was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., left Los Angeles in the 1970s. By then, he also had starred on CBS' "The Good Guys," a situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1970, and "Dusty's Trail, " a 1973 syndicated sitcom.

Denver, who lived for a time in Las Vegas, later performed in dinner theaters, in addition to occasional "Gilligan" reunion shows and other TV appearances. He moved to West Virginia more than a decade ago.

On Tuesday, at the request of state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the Senate adjourned in Denver's memory. A onetime actress working as Sheila James, Kuehl played brainy Zelda Gilroy on "Dobie Gillis."

"It was no mistake that Maynard was the most popular character on the show. He was sweet; he was completely generous of spirit," she told The Times.

Denver, she said, was a consummate actor.

"He made comedy look easy, which it isn't," she said. "Although he valued work, he also put his family and friends first."

Kuehl, who kept in touch with Denver over the years, recalled that shortly after "Dobie Gillis" ended in 1963, she and Denver went "on a junket to Birmingham, Ala., where, as naive Californians, we were shocked at the Jim Crow laws and segregation."

At one point, she recalled, she and Denver stopped at a children's hospital, where they were allowed to visit only the white children.

"Bobby didn't think that was right, so he took my hand and we ran downstairs several flights to the black children's floors, so we could visit them," she recalled. "He wasn't really political. It was more about a deep sense of right and wrong."

Denver's wife, Dreama, and his children, Patrick, Megan, Emily and Colin, were with him when he died. He is also survived by a granddaughter.

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