Remembering Sherwood Schwartz

'Gilligan's Island' and 'Brady Bunch' creator left an indelible mark

I have to be honest. I hated Gilligan’s Island. While sitcoms in the 1960s tended not to be literary masterpieces, since when do you pack a truckload of gowns or a crate full of cash to go on a three-hour cruise? And, while we're at it, why were guests like Don Rickles and Zsa Zsa Gabor able to get off the island with no problem? Still, the dumb show, which ran from 1964 to '67, resonated with viewers and still does to this day.

As it happens, the same person who created Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz, had another idea: a sitcom revolving around two remarried divorcés and their mixed family. The Brady Bunch, which debuted in 1969, also had critics sighing in dismay. And, like Gilligan’s Island before it, the audience loved it and they still do. There was just something wildly appealing about pairing a lovely lady (and three very lovely girls) to a man named Brady (who was living with three boys of his own). 

I mention Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, of course, because of the passing of Sherwood Schwartz, who died Tuesday at 94—his wife of 69 years and his four children at his side. Unlike Aaron Spelling, who also created a host of hit shows, and prolific sitcom producers like Norman Lear and Chuck Lorre, Schwartz never got the attention he deserved.  

Schwartz won an Emmy as a writer on the old Red Skelton Hour, and before that he honed his craft on 1952-55 sitcom I Married Joan. Not only did he create Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch—arguably two of the most talked about series in the history of television—but he also wrote their irrepressibly hummable theme songs. It's astonishing he never paired the Bradys with Gilligan and company in a made-for reunion movie. 

Every year the Television Critics Association Press Tour asks for suggestions on which famed personality to honor each summer for career achievement (Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, and the Smothers Brothers are past winners). And almost every year I have lobbied for the underrated Schwartz. But most critics, unfortunately, do not recognize the sheer brilliance of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. The writing was not stellar. The situations were often sophomoric. And the acting was not exactly Shakespearean. But Sherwood Schwartz knew exactly how to cater to the audience with characters and situations they could relate to. 

Last year I spoke with Schwartz’ son, Lloyd, who is also active in the industry, and asked him why a show like The Brady Bunch resonated. He replied:

“This was a family sitcom, the first in color, told from the point of view of the children and the issues these kids had—fitting in, getting braces, feeling wanted, etc.—are things that all children face at one time or another. By not being topical and focusing on six kids of different ages, there was really something for everyone.”

That something for everyone has, to date, morphed into three scripted spinoffs, one animated half hour, two theatricals, three made-for TV movies, a reality series, stage plays and musicals, countless specials and reunions, fan sites, and books. Gilligan’s Island has also lived on via countless reunions, specials, and books. 

As comedies come and go (and come . . . and go), what set Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch apart was the simplicity of the stories and the warm reliability of the jokes. Jan failing at everything (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!") and Gilligan hanging out with the Skipper (“Little Buddy”) are small-screen situations etched in our mind forever thanks to Schwartz. Any book on the history of television deserves to have a chapter devoted entirely to Sherwood Schwartz.