Sherwood Schwartz, a man who forever altered the landscape of American television, died early Tuesday morning at the age of 94. He was at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, surrounded by Mildred, his wife of 69 years, and his daughter Hope.
The creator of both The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island, he was a master at using a veneer of humor to convey a message of human unity. Both shows are essentially about disparate people forced to live together peacefully; on Gilligan it’s seven castaways trapped on an island, while on Brady it’s two families of nine people - including Alice the housekeeper – living in one house.
"I was thinking today that my dad was relevant in show-biz longer than anyone," said his son Lloyd Schwartz in an interview with Hollywood Patch. "From the radio days with Bob Hope through the early days of TV to inventing shows which changed television forever. I realized today - we had a pretty great dad."
“I’m a man who tried to explain in his own way that people have to learn to get along,” Sherwood Schwartz said in a 1997 interview with Dan Pasternack for the Archive of American Television. “I did it with comedy because that's what I'm familiar with.”
Though both of his shows were seasoned with humor much more than any other ingredient, at their heart was a lesson about human unity.
“The message is that it’s one world,” he said. But when Schwartz revealed this secret message woven into his popular TV shows, executives were often thrown. CBS chairman William S. Paley was visibly distressed when Schwartz told him Gilligan’s Island was a microcosm of the world. Always recognizing the need for levity, Schwartz quickly added, “But it’s a funny microcosm.”
"My dad thought of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island as the same show," his son Lloyd, a TV producer who has worked with his father since 1972. "Both shows were about different people from different places who had to get along. One was an island and one was a house, but they were both the same."
"People thought of Gilligan as a silly show," he continued, "But it was about the connection between all people. My dad wanted to see what happened when the richest man in the world met a farm girl. That's what it was all about, and there's nothing silly about that."
He knew how to write a great joke. Friends who remember him do so inevitably with much laughter. It’s what endeared him to Bob Hope, who gave him his first job in 1939 writing jokes for his radio show, launching his career as a comedy writer.
“Hope was a great [joke] editor and a great ad-libber," Schwartz recalled in an interview with WFMU Radio conducted by Kliph Nesteroff. "He's not given a lot of credit for that. He didn't care if you were Chinese or Black or Jewish, you wrote a good joke and he would love you. I got on his show and that was the beginning of my career.”
Born in 1916 in Passaic, New Jersey, he came to California in 1935 not to write jokes but to study biology, with the aim of becoming a biologist. Needing some extra cash, he started writing jokes for Hope’s hit radio show, on which is brother Al Schwartz already worked. As Sherwood remembered in a 1985 interview, switching from biology to comedy was chiefly an economic decision:
“[Bob] Hope liked my jokes, used them on his show and got big laughs," Schwartz told Nesteroff. “Then he asked me to join his writing staff. I was faced with a major decision: writing comedy or starving to death as a biologist curing diseases. I made a quick career change.”
That career was temporarily disrupted in 1941, when Schwartz was called to serve in World War II. When the war was over, his first job back in Hollywood was on The Ozzie and Harriet Show.
Sherwood remembered Ozzie Nelson, the show’s star and father of pop star Ricky Nelson, as an unusual guy, a perfectionist who would scrutinize each second of his shows long after they aired, and built an identical house to his TV house in Hollywood. [That home, which is said to be haunted by Ozzie’s ghost still, is at 1822 Camino Palmero in Hollywood. The show was shot nearby at the Hollywood General Studios on Las Palmas.]
“[Ozzie] was the only man I know who, after his show was in reruns would take the reruns and re-edit them because he wasn't happy with something," he said to Pasternack. "When it was too late to do anything with them, he still did it.”
Schwartz swiftly became established in Hollywood as a man who could save a sinking TV comedy ship; both The Red Skelton Show as well as My Favorite Martian were strong shows that began to wane in popularity after their initial seasons, so they called in Sherwood.
“My Favorite Martian started on a high-note and then started to drift,” he remembered to Nesteroff. “They called me in to see what was wrong with the show and if I could fix it. I became kind of a show doctor for CBS.”
When enlisted to work with the notoriously difficult Red Skelton, he had a clause inserted into his contract that he’d never have to meet personally with Red Skelton, something which irked the comic legend.
“That was a tough one for him,” Schwartz recalled in his interview with Nesteroff. “He fancied himself a writer because he remembered old jokes. Frequently he would introduce them into a script, which bothered us. Some evenings he was responsible for 10 percent of the jokes or 30 percent, but he never was involved in a writer's meeting.”
His collaboration with Skelton was mostly contentious, as the comedian wanted credit and control of Sherwood’s work, a dynamic that led him to quit and ultimately create his own shows.
“I saw Red [Skelton] in a TV interview and they asked him how does he account for the fact he was the only comedian still left on TV at the time," Schwartz told Nesteroff. "Red said, `Every week, when I get those lousy scripts from the writers I yawn and the voice of God tells me how to fix things.’”
“So the next day I went to CBS and I said, `Goodbye.’ I said, `I've taken a lot of verbal abuse from Red. And in all his interviews he refers very deprecatingly to writers in general and his own in particular.’ And I said goodbye and they said, `Wait, wait, wait!’ We were number one at the time and they didn't want to lose number one. And they don't know how to account for [the success]. They don't know if it's the writing or the acting. If you're number one, they want to keep you there.”
But Skelton was “about 5-years-old emotionally,” and he needed to escape, Schwartz said. He moved on from strength to strength, first as a show doctor on other shows, and then as the creator of two TV landmarks.
Both of Schwartz's shows were originally on the air for relatively short runs: Gilligan’s Island ran for only three seasons, while The Brady Bunch lasted for five – but both quickly became among the most popular series ever in syndication. And their theme songs, with lyrics by Schwartz, have also become two of the most enduringly beloved TV themes of all time.
To explain the premise of each show to viewers, Sherwood concocted simple lyrics which detailed all the human dynamics of both shows. Both songs are forever beloved for the great amount of information conveyed to catchy tunes, a pop achievement no longer attempted these days, but which became a template for other shows back in the '60s and '70s.
The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island often called the most recognizable TV theme ever, was modeled on an old sea shanty written by composer George Wyle. It was written quickly, in only one sitting. “America doesn’t need great musical themes just something it can remembe,” Wyle said in an interview with NPR.
There were two different versions of the song, the first recorded by the vocal group The Wellingtons, and the second by The Eligibles.
The Brady Bunch Theme, which is more of a sprite pop anthem, was written with composer Frank DeVol. But it’s the theme song to a lesser known Schwartz show, It’s About Time, which remained his favorite. “It still is the best theme song I ever wrote,” he said. `It's about time, it's about space, it's about people in the strangest place!’ I don't sing much, but that's the theme I wrote.”
Though both The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island were cancelled, neither show went away for long. Syndication secured that generations would continue to love the wholesome antics of both series, and each returned to TV several times in various reunions.
Talks of a Gilligan’s Island movie have been circulating for some time. The Brady Bunch inspired first a theatrical production, and then a film, The Brady Bunch Movie, which has had two sequels.
Schwartz didn’t write the scripts for the sequels, but he did instill his stamp of decency into them, as he maintained wholesome American values were integral to both shows. When he learned that a script for the Brady Bunch movie then in development at Paramount had some obscene language in it, he made such a fuss that all offensive words were removed. Though the film was set in the '90s, the family still appeared to be happily back in the G-rated early '70s, preserving Schwartz’s theme of human harmony.
Sherwood Schwartz is survived by his wife of 69 years, Mildred, and Schwartz and their four children: Donald, Lloyd, Ross, and Hope Juber (named for Bob Hope).
Asked in 1997 how he’d like to be remembered, Schwartz answered immediately. “I’m a guy whose message was that we all have to learn to live with each other. I think it's more acceptable to tell it in comedy form. That’s what I did. And that's how I'd like to be remembered."
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