What’s better for a Valentine’s Day treat than the classic series about a guy who hasn’t met a girl he doesn’t love? Dobie Gillis falls madly in love in almost every episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a landmark CBS sitcom based on the famous short stories by Max Shulman.
In addition to being girl-crazy, the Dobie as depicted in the stories was also a hapless and mildly sneaky young man who was a teen, college student or whatever Shulman wanted him to be at a given time. The Dobie stories was also adapted into a splashy MGM movie that often runs on TCM.
The series took the stories and expanded them into TV’s first teen-focused prime time comedy, starring Dwayne Hickman, fresh from playing a similar role on The Bob Cummings Show. What made the TV show extra-special was the flexibility of its format and its remarkably talented, revolving cast, particularly Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs, Sheila James as Zelda Gilroy and Frank Faylen as Dobie’s dad.
Even though show left the series, Tuesday Weld made a few appearances in later shows, but for the most part she was replaced by a succession of young ladies who had some of her attributes but lacked her quirky charm; they were mostly one-note females of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s. They were certainly not shining examples of today’s social mores.
Neither for that matter was Dobie, who tried to pick up young ladies with some pretty cringe-worthy lines, most frequently calling them “my great tawny animal.” Even the girls in the series generally find his lines more than smarmy.
Hickman clearly soaked up his youthful show business experiences like a sponge. His performance, as he has himself noted, veers between Bob Cummings and Jack Benny and it makes him a superb straight man. The episodes in which he is not the sole protagonist are the ones that hold up best.
Bob Denver created two pop culture icons with Maynard and Gilligan. They are similar but not identical. Denver is better than he gets credit for. Maynard is more introspective, witty and ironic than Gilligan. Both Maynard and Gilligan are like innocent children, both chatter incessantly, but Maynard is about 14 years old inside while Gilligan is about 9. Like Jughead in the Archie comics, Maynard doesn’t mind girls as friends but would rather not get involved in a relationship that would tamper with his precious weirdness.
The language of the Dobie Gillis show is legendary, from Maynard’s squeal of “WORK!” beginning in season one to the movie that seems to be playing at the theater for five years, The Monster That Devoured Cleveland. The characters names are almost Seussian.
As Dobie’s dad, Faylen is a crusty but benign owner of a small grocery store filled with quaint, low 1960's prices. Like Archie Bunker, he often mentions his WWII service (including a good conduct medal). Florida Friebus, as Dobie's mom, gets little to do for the series run except for a few second season episodes. It's a shame because she was a stage veteran (she co-wrote a Broadway version of Alice in Wonderland with Eva LaGallienne) and of course, was the lady who knitted on The Bob Newhart show.
The character I would have liked to see more of was Zelda Gilroy, the determined pursuer of Dobie. Zelda is constantly proven to be capable of a lot more than Dobie, perhaps an early comment on the limited choices women had over 50 years ago. She could be Dobie’s booster but seemed not allowed to boost herself – at least until she became a recording star (which was never followed through).
Fans of the show know that the real life Sheila James Kuhl became a highly respected State Senator. It would have been interesting to see how the fictional Zelda and Thalia in particular might have changed with the times as the ‘60s progressed.
As you enjoy each season, look for familiar faces. William Schallert, also known to TV buffs as Patty Duke’s TV dad, plays Professor Pomfret. When the characters enter college, their new professor is Dr. Burkhart, is played by Duke’s TV mom, Jean Byron, who gets far more to do on the Dobie show than on the Duke one.
Also popping up in episodes are Ryan O’Neal, Marlo Thomas, Steve Franken, Mel Blanc, Verna Felton and even silent film star H.B. Warner.
Special mention is due to great studio singer Gloria Wood, who provides the vocal jazz scats used in the early theme songs and as incidental music. Wood was a member of the famed Modernaires, sang on the Bing Crosby Show, made the hit record of “The Woody Woodpecker Song” with Kay Kyser, voiced numerous cartoons and cut records for Disney. Maynard casually drops Wood's name in the episode “The Big Question.”
The format of the show changed itself frequently to avoid becoming stale. Dobie and Maynard would occasionally appear as recruits in the reserves. Occasionally, the show would delve into fantasy in the Disney wacky comedy vein. Somehow it worked and the clever wordplay was the hallmark.
Extras abound on the complete set, some thanks to Stu Shostak of stusshow.com, where you can download several hours of audio programming featuring Dobie cast interviews not available anywhere else. The neatest extra to me was a Coca-Cola music special in which Hickman and Denver introduce Annette (even though we don’t get to see her).