Bob Denver, the veteran character actor who poked fun at the counterculture with a pair of zany but iconic sitcom roles, died Friday due to complications from cancer treatment. He was 70 years old.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, the spindly actor with the animated face will continue to be remembered in television syndication as both the bumbling first mate Gilligan on “Gilligan’s Island” and the clueless beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” In recent years, the reclusive Denver had retreated from the Hollywood spotlight and devoted more time to his family.
Denver’s career initially took off when, in 1959, television executives looking to capitalize on the anti-establishment “beat” movement sanitized literary revolutionaries like Jack Kerouac into the goateed, turtleneck-wearing hipster Krebs. Allergic to the word “work” and obsessed with bongo drums, Maynard provided an antiseptic entry point into a movement that would influence everything from hippies to punk rockers to rappers raging against oppression. The real beats despised the caricature, naturally, but Denver broke out from the largely traditional sitcom while bringing a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”-type awareness to a movement previously ignored by the masses.
One year after “Gillis” was off the air, Denver returned to TV with the role that would bring him even greater fame: the well-meaning but hopelessly inept slacker Gilligan. Although once again portraying a character whose irresponsibility could be seen as the older generation’s interpretation of the soon-to-be Woodstock generation, Denver’s effortless charm reminded television fans that there were good intentions behind these nontraditional youngsters. Like Krebs, the character penetrated pop culture whether or not viewers stopped to ponder such messages.
Over the last two decades the easygoing Denver had frequently offered himself up for self-parody, appearing on programs ranging from “The Simpsons” to “ALF” to “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” often wearing his iconic white nautical cap.
“The TV Land Awards were in March ’04,” Denver’s agent, Mike Eisenstadt, said of the actor’s last public appearance. “He was a humble guy, and family always came first with him. Everybody around him, especially his family, knows the legacy he left. I don’t know if he really thought of it in those terms, though; he just thought of himself as Bob, a guy who’s done some acting.”
With “Gilligan” finding new life once again on DVD and the TBS cable network running a Denver-free reality program called “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” the last few years had once again brought renewed relevance to a program largely derided by critics, yet referenced in everything from the film “Dazed and Confused” to a cover version of the song by punk band NOFX.
“My kids know of Gilligan, I grew up with Gilligan, my parents knew Gilligan,” Eisenstadt added. “He needed to be a private guy, because he couldn’t go anywhere without people coming up to him. When I’d be at appearances with him, it was just incredible.”
In addition to his Gilligan and Maynard work, Denver appeared in hundreds of television and film roles, spanning a 50-year career. He died with his wife of 28 years by his side, along with his four children.
In lieu of flowers the Denver family requests that donations be made to the handicapped in Denver’s adopted home state of West Virginia. More information is available at BobDenver.com.