How the Unaired Gilligan’s Island Pilot Episode Was Recovered

Tales of Recovery examines how specific television programs once thought missing or lost have been recovered. Often, these recoveries were not well-publicized or took place so long ago that they themselves have been forgotten.

Gilligan’s Island ran for three seasons and 98 episodes on CBS between 1964 and 1967. NBC broadcast the first of three reunion telefilms made-for-TV movies in October 1978. Two others aired in 1979 and 1981. But the original pilot episode that Sherwood Schwartz used to sell Gilligan’s Island to CBS remained unseen and forgotten until 1992.

Significant cast changes were made to the series after the pilot was picked up by the network. Actor John Gabriel played the “Professor” in the pilot; he was replaced by Russell Johnson for the series. Actresses Kit Smythe and Nancy McCarthy played secretaries Ginger and Bunny; they were replaced by Tina Louise as Ginger the movie star and Dawn Wells as farm girl Mary Ann. The famous “three-hour cruise” was actually a “six-hour ride” in the pilot. Also, the pilot featured a calypso theme song rather than “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.”

Footage from the original pilot was worked into a December 1964 episode of Gilligan’s Island (“Birds Gotta Fly, Fish Gotta Talk”) in the form of flashbacks. It wasn’t until October 1992 that viewers finally got the chance to see the pilot in its entirety. It was unearthed by cable channel TBS after an employee learned of its existence from a Gilligan’s Island book [1].

TBS checked with Turner Entertainment, its parent company. Turner found the original negative in its archives, part of the MGM/United Artists film library that was purchased by Ted Turner in the mid-1980s [2]. A copy of the pilot was sent to star Bob Denver, who called it “kind of neat” [3]. Denver later recorded a brief introduction that was shown before the pilot episode aired for the first time on Friday, October 16th, 1992 from 8:05PM to 8:35PM (TBS started its programming five minutes past the hour).

The “lost pilot episode” was released on VHS by Columbia House in 1993. When the first season of Gilligan’s Island was released on DVD in February 2004, the unaired pilot was included along with an optional commentary track by creator Sherwood Schwartz.

Sources:

1 King, Susan. “‘Gilligan’s’ Pilot Cruise.” Los Angeles Times. 11 Oct. 1992: 73.
2 “Newsmakers.” Houston Chronicle. 17 Oct. 1992: 2.
3 Ibid.

Last Revised February 19th, 2016

6 Comments

  • Randy Riddle says:

    I hate to say it, but you’re wrong on this one – I saw the pilot on WBTV, Channel 3, in Charlotte, NC in the 1970s or early 80s on a local program called “Those Were the Days”.

    It aired Friday nights at 11:30 for 90-120 minutes and was hosted by local personality Mike McKay. The program was an outgrowth of WBTV’s anniversary, where they spent a week showing classic 50s tv shows that had appeared on the station years before. It was so popular, they started up the regular series.

    Usually, they would show programs like “Twilight Zone”, “The Millionaire”, Jack Benny, “Love That Bob”, “Route 66”. Sometimes, they would show something “special” like the “Gilligan’s Island” pilot.

    I distinctly remember it because WBTV was, at the time, showing “Gilligan’s Island” weekdays, both the b&w and color episodes, and that was the only episode they showed on “Those Were the Days”. Mike did an intro for the episode, explaining it was a pilot and some of the differences from the series and I recall the strange calypso theme music in particular.

    So I think it might have been included in at least some of the tv syndication packages that went out, but might not have been played much since it’s a rather jarring parallel universe.

    I missed “Those Were the Days” when it went off the air, but was pleasantly surprised to find TVLand doing much the same thing on cable a few years later.

  • RGJ says:

    Randy, that’s incredible. Everything I’ve read about the unaired Gilligan’s Island pilot states that it was basically forgotten for decades until TBS uncovered it. In this case, whoever was involved in getting the pilot aired on WBTV obviously knew it existed.

  • Nana says:

    That is odd, because when ‘Gilligan’ introduced the pilot in Oct 1992, he said no one had ever seen it before. Here’s the intro on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG9QXNN0qyI

    • Wm Ward says:

      In the early days of TV actual secondary masters were mailed in some cases.first reels were set up over night for the Fay shift. It seems possible a secondary master of a forgotten pilot could have simply collecting dust til someone at the local station found it. Hence the special airing in one local Market. TV was bare 20 years old then and rules weren’t quiteha
      Shed put on such finds.

  • Nana says:

    P.S. McKay’s show was “Those Were the Years” (not to be confused with the name of the ‘All in the Family’ pilot, and later theme song, “Those Where the Days”). Given the time frame this show ran, Randy Riddle might also be confusing ‘Two on a Raft’ with the pilot ‘Marooned’, as the former was the first episode aired to the public, and sometimes mistakenly called the ‘pilot’.

  • David says:

    Where can the entire pilot be seen?
    It seems as allusive as can be!

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