Gilligan’s Island aired on CBS from 1964 to 1967, giving television viewers a weekly escape to an oasis where silliness reigned. About 1o years after leaving prime time, Gilligan’s Island resurfaced, thanks to creator Sherwood Schwartz pondering the fates of the castaways from the S.S. Minnow.
In 1978, Schwartz returned Gilligan, Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell, Ginger, Mary Ann, and the Professor to the airwaves in the tv-movie Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. A true believer in his vision, Schwartz financed part of the production because NBC, the network agreeing to broadcast the tv-movie, implemented budget constraints that Schwartz believed would negatively impact the production values.
“Against everybody’s better judgment, including my own, I decided to go ahead with Rescue from Gilligan’s Island as a personal venture,” explained Schwartz in his 1988 book Inside Gilligan’s Island. “I knew the $200,000 deficit would escalate. However, I also knew the syndication rights to the two-hour film would be worth quite a bit because the Gilligan series was known worldwide. I doubted that there would ever be a profit, but I wanted to protect the money I had already spent in pre-production. And I believed Rescue from Gilligan’s Island would add a little more fuel to the syndication fires on the original series.”
All but one of the seven actors from the original cast returned: Jim Backus as Mr. Howell, Natalie Schaefer as Mrs. Howell, Dawn Wells as Mary Ann, Bob Denver as Gilligan, Alan Hale as Skipper, and Russell Johnson as Professor. Tina Louise opted not to reprise her role of Ginger, the glamorous movie star. Judith Baldwin replaced her.
After the Professor predicts a massive storm will hit the island, the castaways construct a raft from their huts. Indeed, the storm carries the castaways’ makeshift raft into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To cook fish for the castaways’ sustenance, Gilligan starts a fire. But, in true Gilligan style, he leaves it unattended; many rescue attempts were foiled by Gilligan’s ineptitude. When the castaways put out the fire, the consequent smoke catches the attention of the United States Coast Guard. If not for Gilligan’s fire, the Coast Guard would never have seen the raft.
Rescue from Gilligan’s Island tapped the power of nostalgia during a low morale point in the nation. Since Gilligan’s Island disappeared from prime time in 1967, Americans had endured a presidential resignation, two oil crises, inflation, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and a tortured end of the Vietnam War.
Beyond the audience, Rescue from Gilligan’s Island affected the cast. Schwartz wrote, “And if you want the ultimate suspension of disbelief, three of the Castaways started to cry. They confessed to me later that the crowds and the brass-band welcome made them believe they were actually being rescued. As the bands played and the people cheered, the Castaways climbed up the gangplank from their huts with tears in their eyes, overcome with real emotion. At that moment, a TV show had become reality not only to the people who were watching, but to the actors themselves.”
The success of Rescue from Gilligan’s Island prompted two additional tv-movies: The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island and The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island.