Nearly everyone who has ever watched television in the western world is at least passingly familiar with Gilligan’s Island. The series about seven castaways on an uncharted island ran on CBS for three years in the mid-1960s and has since become one of the most popular syndicated shows of all time and a mainstay of American popular culture. We revel in dissecting the show’s minutiae, pondering such questions as “Why did the Howells bring suitcases full of money on a three-hour tour?” and “How come Gilligan and the Skipper wear the same clothes every day, but they never get dirty or torn?”
The subject of one of the more enduring trivia questions about the show over the years has been “What was Gilligan’s full name?” Was ‘Gilligan’ his first name or his last name? And what was his full name?
A few events in the early 1990s spurred the claim that Gilligan was a surname, and that the character’s first name was “Willy”: TBS finally aired the pilot of Gilligan’s Island (an episode that had never been broadcast) in 1992, and TV Guide announced in 1993 that it had discovered (from an early press release) that Gilligan’s first name was supposed to be “Willy.” Somehow the pilot, the first regularly-broadcast episode, and the TV Guide claim became conflated in the public’s mind, producing an oft-repeated but erroneous bit of television trivia:
Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island had a first name that was only used once, on the never-aired pilot show. His first name was Willy. It was mentioned once in the first episode on their radio’s newscast about the wreck.
Some of the confusion here stems from the fact that the familiar group of Gilligan’s Island actors did not all appear in the pilot episode. After the pilot was shot, but before the series went into production, the part of the Professor was re-cast with a new actor, and the characters named Ginger and Bunny (both secretaries in the pilot), were transformed into a movie star and a small-town farm girl and re-cast with new actresses as well. Because of this change in casting, the pilot was unusable as a regular-season episode and was not broadcast in full until TBS finally aired it 25 years after the series had ended its network run. (Some of salvageable portions of the pilot were inserted as flashback scenes in the first season’s Christmas episode, “Birds Gotta Fly, Fish Gotta Talk.”)
Since the Gilligan’s Island‘s pilot could not be aired as the series’ introductory episode (because, as noted above, three of the character roles had been changed and re-cast), the first episode — “Two on a Raft,” first aired on 26 September 1964 — opened with the castaways shipwrecked on the island, and the details of how they came to be there were not shown. In order to provide the viewing audience with some background information about the characters, therefore, a scene in which the castaways listen to a radio news broadcast about their disappearance was inserted into the first episode to offer viewers a few details about their back stories.
The broadcast informed us that the Skipper was an “old salt in these waters”; that Thurston Howell was “one of the world’s wealthiest men” (and, contrary to the theme song, a billionaire rather than a mere millionaire); that Mrs. Howell was a “socially prominent international hostess”; that Mary Ann was from Winfield, Kansas, and worked at the Winfield general store; that Ginger “boarded the boat after a nightclub singing engagement still wearing the evening dress from her last performance”; and that the Professor was a “research scientist and well-known Scoutmaster.” The broadcast mentioned all the characters’ full names as well:
o Jonas Grumby (Skipper)
o Roy Hinkley (The Professor)
o Thurston Howell III (Mr. Howell)
o “Lovey” Howell (Mrs. Howell)
o Ginger Grant (Ginger)
o Mary Ann Summers (Mary Ann)
But that same radio broadcast, the one that provided the full name of every other character on the show, reported only that the crew included a “young first mate named Gilligan.” Not once in the entire series — not in the original (unaired) pilot, not in the first episode, not in any subsequent episode — was any other name associated with the ‘Gilligan’ character. Nor was it ever said, or even implied, at any time that Gilligan was anything other than the character’s first name.
So, as far as the show was concerned, Gilligan had but a single name. It is true that some early conceptual material for the series did make reference to the name ‘Willy Gilligan,’ which indicated that Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz did give some consideration — at least briefly — to a full name for the character.
However, that full name was one of the many details that never made it past the early treatment stage and into the show. Other elements from the original series treatment were also dropped along the way, such as the idea that Gilligan was an ex-Navy cook who knew nothing about the sea but, desperate for a job, convinced the Skipper that he was an experienced seaman. Instead, the show’s theme song simply cast Gilligan (ironically) as a “mighty sailin’ man.”
Moreover, when Sherwood Schwartz later explained how he came to choose the characters’ names, he made it clear that ‘Gilligan’ had to have been the character’s first name, because the Howells were the only characters ever referenced by their surnames:
In a further effort to make the characters prototypes rather than completely flesh and blood, I decided to call them only by first names or nicknames — excepting Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III, of course, because that would have been out of keeping with their characters.
In short, no name other than ‘Gilligan’ was ever used for the title character in Gilligan’s Island, not even in the original pilot episode. Yes, some evidence suggests that series creator Sherwood Schwartz considered using the name ‘Willy Gilligan’ during the series’ initial planning stages, but Schwartz ultimately decided that ‘Gilligan’ was the character’s first name, thus precluding the use of ‘Willy Gilligan’ as a full name.