Like Gilligan and the Skipper, two of his iconic TV creations, Sherwood Schwartz had always thought he knew in which direction the winds would take him.
He wanted to pursue a career in medicine — specifically to do research in endocrinology. “I had no interest in writing or comedy except that I could do it,” says the affable ninety-two-year-old, seated in the office of his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by mementos of a seventy-year career as a writer and producer on shows such as Gilligan‘s Island and The Brady Bunch.
Even though he earned money as a young man writing jokes for amateur comedy contests, Schwartz, who later earned a master’s degree in biology, was focused on medical school. But he ran headlong into a roadblock. Because of quotas on the number of Jewish students admitted to the medical school to which he applied, he was put on a waiting list. “They suggested that I change my name or religion to get in. I thought if I worked hard enough and got good grades, I could get in. As I pointed out, ‘This is a democracy.’ I didn’t believe it, but they were right. I didn’t get into medical school.”
Blown off-course, Schwartz left his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, for Los Angeles. The year was 1938, and Schwartz, now twenty-one, went to live with his older brother, Al, a staff writer on Bob Hope’s radio show. “It didn’t seem to me to be hard to write jokes, which is all Bob Hope really wanted,” Schwartz says. “So I wrote some jokes, and gave them to my brother and asked him if he’d show them to Bob.”
The idea was to sell a few jokes a week for five or ten dollars each, enough to not be a burden on his brother. Hope liked the jokes so much, though, that he offered Schwartz a writing job. “[Hope] taught me the ins and outs of comedy writing…I had to be brief, I had to be very funny, and I had to be consistent. While he didn‘t sit down and mentor me, I played by his rules and I learned to write concisely and funny.”
After four years with Hope, Schwartz joined the Army and was sent to the Armed Forces Network. There, he estimates, he wrote for as many as 200 stars who appeared on the radio program Command Performance and other shows. When he returned to civilian life, Schwartz wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on radio, and later for The Beulah Show, a radio comedy starring Hattie McDaniel.
Hal Kanter, who was also on the Beulah writing staff, says Schwartz proved to be a writer with a unique approach. “As the creator of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood has brought, and continues to bring to TV, that increasingly rare quality of American humor — originality.”
In the late 1940s, as America fell in love with television, Schwartz switched to the new medium as a writer on I Married Joan, starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus (who would later star on Gilligan’s Island). He was getting a reputation around town for knowing how to make viewers laugh; the executives at the ad agency for Johnson Wax began to take notice. The company sponsored The Red Skelton Show, which, after early success, was not faring well. Schwartz was asked for suggestions.
Skelton, perhaps the greatest comic and mime ever, was not being used well, Schwartz told agency executives. The comedian had too much to say and not enough to do. Impressed, the agency asked Schwartz to run the show. He refused.
Schwartz recalls that while Skelton was an enormous talent, he had a reputation for treating writers badly. After some negotiations, Schwartz agreed to take a job as head writer, but only if he would never have to meet with the star. It was an odd arrangement, but it worked. It also brought Schwartz his first and only Primetime Emmy award. Schwartz also won a Writers Guild Award for one episode, which, remarkably, contained not a word of dialogue.
During those years in the mid-to-late 1950s, Schwartz and his wife, Mildred, had their fourth child, Hope. “We named her Hope because she came after three boys, and we were hoping for a girl,” he says. “Skelton thought I was naming my daughter after Bob Hope, and I guess he was jealous. I got a telegram — this is the only nice thing Red Skelton ever did for me — saying, ’What would have been wrong with Skelton Schwartz?’”
Eventually Schwartz grew weary of working with Skelton. He left the series and was hired to retool the comedy My Favorite Martian in 1963, but he was also nursing his own idea for a TV series. Back in radio, he and his brother had pitched a series called Help, about six or seven servants to a rich family. The idea was to show how people can learn to live with one another.
While the pitch went nowhere, Schwartz didn’t give up on the idea of a series about different types of people who had to learn to live together. But how could he bring together seven people with completely different lives? “Then it came to me in the middle of the night,” he says.
Gilligan’s Island, shot in 1963, brought together a disparate group of people — a movie star, a professor, a millionaire and his wife, and a farm girl, along with a boat skipper and his first mate — who were stranded on an uncharted island. “They had to learn to live together,” he says. “They had no choice. My attitude is, if people have to learn to do something, they will do it, even if it comes to living with other people they don’t even like.”
Viewers loved the show, but critics weren’t kind. “Nobody ever understood that was what the show meant,” Schwartz says. “Even those critics who liked the show thought it was just a romp in the tropics.”
John Rich, who directed the pilots of both Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, as well as several episodes of each, understood why critics weren’t on board. “I always looked at it as a wonderful children’s show that had no villains. And that’s really a hallmark of Sherwood’s writing. No villainy. No bad things happened.”
Gilligan’s Island lasted only three seasons, but it established Schwartz as a reliable and successful comedy showrunner — and a songwriter, to boot. The series’ theme song was written by Schwartz (and George Wyle) in one night to satisfy a network executive who doubted there was an easy way to explain the premise. It has since become an American classic.
With stature from the success of Gilligan’s Island, Schwartz pitched a new series. While it, too, focused on people having to learn to live together, the series, The Brady Bunch, was actually inspired by a short news story he’d read about a growing number of marriages that had at least one child from a previous marriage.
Network executives liked the idea, but each of the three major networks that Schwartz pitched wanted him to make changes — he refused. “I had determination, and you have to have that,” he says. It took an extra year, and the 1968 release of the hit movie Yours, Mine and Ours, also about a blended family, before ABC agreed to do it as Schwartz proposed.
“He had his finger on the pulse of America like very few other people,“ director Rich says. “He knew [what] the public [wanted] and they really went for his shows in a big way. It was no accident that they didn’t follow the critics. They followed their own feelings.”
Over the course of five seasons, The Brady Bunch won fans from several generations and has now been broadcast in syndication around the globe (fifty-three countries at last count). Production ended nearly a quarter of a century ago, but Schwartz still gets fan mail and photo requests every day.
One of Schwartz’s sons, Lloyd, a writer and producer who has worked on a number of subsequent Brady Bunch telefilms, has heard people say that the Bradys didn’t seem like a family in the real world. Not true, says Lloyd, who saw his own family — except for the remarriage of the parents — in every episode.
Sherwood, he says, was the kind of dad who coached Little League and was a Cub Scout leader. “He was always there. We all ate around the table together. He never went on location. All of his shows were shot in Hollywood, and he was home on the weekends.”
Schwartz’s philanthropic efforts can also be seen around town, including the Gilligan’s Island waiting room that he funded at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.
“He’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever known,” Rich says. “He’s a sweetheart of a human being. He’s gentle, he’s cooperative, he doesn’t hide things. He lets you know what’s going on at all times and I found him to be a wonderful producer.”
Although Schwartz had little success with later series (among them It’s About Time, Dusty’s Trail, Big John, Little John, Harper Valley PTA and Together We Stand), his two big hits remain viewer magnets to this day, and have been adapted as animation series, TV reunion movies, feature films and musicals.
“The fact that he’s had two shows that are way up there in the public consciousness all the time is amazing,” Lloyd says. “In every decade they’re done again in some new way.”
The importance and popularity of Schwartz’s work were recognized earlier this year with the dedication of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Amidst a large crowd and a squadron of motorcycle police, Schwartz says he was taken aback as his star was uncovered. “It came to me that my great-, great-grandchildren are going to walk down this boulevard one day and they’re going to see my name. It really brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.”
Schwartz once had a sign on his office wall: “I am immortal and I will remain immortal until the day I die.” For his legions of fans, that day will never come.