Future Gilligan’s Island star Bob Denver first gained popularity as Maynard G Krebs on the television series The Many Loves of Dobbie Gillis. From the 1950s through the early 1960s, there was the so-called “Beatnik Movement,” in which numerous young people embraced a non-conformist, anti-materialistic lifestyle and would express themselves through different forms of art, among them poetry, music, literature and painting. The term “beatnik” was a derogatory one, but leave it to television to give it just the right twist to turn one of them — in this case Maynard G Krebs — into an anti-hero.
While the series, which ran from 1959 to 1963, starred Dwayne Hickman as the title character, who dreamt of money, popularity and the attention of girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day, the media spotlight very quickly shifted its focus to Denver’s character. In describing Maynard G Krebs, Wikipedia notes, “An enthusiastic fan of jazz music (with a strong distaste for the music of Lawrence Welk), Maynard plays the bongos, collects tinfoil and petrified frogs, and steers clear of romance, authority figures and work. Always speaking with the vernacular and slang of the beatniks and jazz musicians he admired, Maynard punctuates his sentence with the word ‘like’ and has a tendency towards malapropisms.”
It all sounds very cute, but some of the critics of the time weren’t amused, seeming to warn people not to be sucked in by the TV persona of a beatnik. A perfect example was the New York Daily News, which, on August 15, 1959, said of Denver and his character:
“Judging from the standards, if you can call them that, the actor would come under the heading of a well-groomed beatnik. His hair is jagged and long, but every lacquered strand we noticed is carefully placed in position on his forehead. His beard, while in keeping with those worn by the gone ones, is trimmed to perfection. His dirty clothes have all the spots in the right places (for camera angles, of course). Even his torn pants cuffs form a neat but irregular pattern, as though they had been trimmed with a pie cutter. To put it bluntly, Denver in our inexpert opinion, is square, man. In fact, he’s so square he actually enjoys being a member of Hollywood’s cult of money-theism, which, as you know, would be abhorred by any under-fed, anemic beatster who considers himself ‘with it.'”
It would seem they missed the point that the show wasn’t going for stark realism.
Maynard G Krebs, TV’s First Hipster Takes Off
“Maynard G Krebs was the first sitcom character of its type,” offers pop culture historian, performer and author Geoffrey Mark. “Maynard was the first anti-hero, and the first time a sitcom had started to satirize the cool jazz movement and beatniks. The character itself was a breakout from anything else that was on television at the time. And it’s like so often happens in sitcoms, like Happy Days where Ron Howard is the star, but a secondary character — Henry Winkler’s Fonzie in that case — just takes over.”
Mark continues, “It became a thing where people were tuning in to watch Maynard, really, and through pure kismet they found someone like Bob to do the show, because he had almost no experience in big time show business. And that Dwayne was the nice man that he was and didn’t bristle over it. He was just happy for the work. So you’ve got this completely unvetted actor playing a breakout part in a sitcom and it worked so well. And they made sure that Maynard never did anything illegal or really immoral, and what they never said, but portrayed, was that Maynard was stoned all the time.”
You’re in the Army Now!
Early in the show’s run, just as Maynard G Krebs was taking off, everything nearly derailed: Bob Denver was notified that he was being drafted into the Army. Reported the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, “An actor was hired immediately to play Maynard’s cousin from New Orleans, thereby keeping the beatnik role in the series. Denver, his beatnik beard shaved clean, reported to the draft board, tightly clutching his little bag of toilet articles. He recalled, ‘I had no breaks before this series, and here I was being drafted out of the best job I ever had.’ An examiner found traces of an old neck injury. Denver was reclassified 4-F. He was sprung. Said Denver, ‘If I never get another break for 10 years in this business, I’ve had more than my share.'”
The Army would actually work its way back into Dobie Gillis, though this time by their own volition. “The ratings started going down, and I think it had to do with the fact that the writers had written themselves into a corner,” opines Mark. “It was set at a high school in a small town with a stingy father living over a grocery store. There’s only so many of those shows you can do, so what did they decide? They transferred Dobie and Maynard into the Army and that didn’t work at all. They did almost a full season of them away from all the other actors and it was just them in the army. The ratings went down, because the audience wanted to see the other characters, too.”
“So, the next season,” he adds, “they’ve left the Army, graduated high school and now they’re in junior college where they somehow have some of the same teachers they had in high school. And then Dwayne got Hepatitis. So suddenly a cousin comes to live with Dobie and his parents, who sort of takes Dwayne’s place in the action. Then, when Dwayne was finally well enough to come back to work, they retroactively had him do wraparounds by the Thinker statue, setting up how his cousin had this or that adventure with Maynard. The show never had a chance to really recover from all those unfortunate circumstances.”
In 1963, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was canceled, and Bob Denver — who had so successfully given us Maynard G Krebs — found himself playing variations of what he’d done for much of the rest of his career, beginning the following year with the title character in Gilligan’s Island.
“Gilligan,” says Mark, “was Maynard without the marijuana. He’s inept and awkward with something missing. One plus one always equaled three to Gilligan, but that was true with Maynard, too. The difference was that they had to soften the character of Gilligan in comparison. As lovable as Maynard Krebs was, there was also a darker side to the character. They inferred that he was not being treated very well at home, that perhaps there were some things they wouldn’t talk about on television back then, but that maybe Maynard’s home life wasn’t exactly a safe place.”