‘Gilligan’s Island:’ Thurston Howell III Actor Jim Backus Played a Major Role in How the Sitcom Was Written

Can you imagine Gilligan’s Island without Mr. and Mrs. Howell?

Well, you almost had to because Gilligan’s Island creator, Sherwood Schwartz, wrote Mr. Howell’s character out of the show when he couldn’t find an actor to fill the role. Here’s how it went down: Schwartz wrote Gilligan’s Island with his friend Jim Backus in mind for the role of Mr. Howell. But when it came time to cast the show, there were a couple of issues that blocked Backus from being cast.

The first problem involved money. Gilligan’s Island wasn’t even an official show yet, let alone an international sensation, so Schwartz didn’t have a lot of money to pour into casting big names. And Jim Backus was definitely a big name. He already had several sitcoms under his belt including I Married Joan, The Jim Backus Show, and The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. So, Schwartz couldn’t afford to pay Backus to star on Gilligan’s Island. The second problem was that Backus already contracted with another CBS show and couldn’t sign with anyone else until the contract ended. So, Schwartz just resigned to the belief that Jim Backus as Mr. Howell wasn’t meant to be.

Schwartz auditioned other actors to see if he could find someone to fit the role, but no one could bring the comedy chops he was looking for. So, he decided to drastically minimize Mr. Howell’s role on the show. Just think about all the situations that never would have been if Mr. Howell had been largely written out of the show. He and Mrs. Howell were such vital characters on the show and brought so many hilarious scenes to Gilligan’s Island.

Mr. and Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island.

How Did Gilligan’s Island End Up Casting Jim Backus as Mr. Howell?

Nevertheless, Mr. Howell’s character had to be written out. Schwartz rewrote the pilot episode script so that Mr. Howell’s character was almost non-existent. During an interview in 2004, Schwartz talked about rewriting the script.

“Because they wouldn’t let me sign Jim, I wrote the script minimizing that part, because I couldn’t find anybody else to play it,” said Schwartz. “I shrank the part, feeling I’d have to go with a second banana who was not a top banana.”

Luckily, the show biz gods stepped in and delivered Schwartz his top banana. One day, CBS called Shwartz to tell him that Backus’s pilot didn’t sell and that he was open to signing with another show. Schwartz immediately called his friend and asked him to be on the show. According to Schwartz, Backus asked him to send over a script for him to review. But Schwartz refused and said that he couldn’t send him a script. When Backus asked why, Schwartz replied, “I didn’t think you were available and it’s written much more minor than you would be in the series. So I don’t want you to read this. You won’t like it.” Backus replied, “You want me to sign a contract to star in a show without reading a script?” Schwartz confirmed that was exactly what he was asking. And Backus concluded with, “You talked me into it.”

Eventually, Backus did get a chance to read the Gilligan’s Island script that Schwartz had rewritten. His reply? Schwartz reported that Backus said, “My part was shorter than a wine list at a restaurant.”

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