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Sherwood Schwartz dead at 94

Television writer and producer Sherwood Schwartz gets a

Television writer and producer Sherwood Schwartz gets a group hug and kisses from actresses in his televison shows -- Florence Henderson, left, of "The Brady Bunch" and Dawn Wells, of "Gilligan's Island." Schwartz died July 12, 2011 in Los Angeles. (March 7, 2008) Photo Credit: AP

Sherwood Schwartz -- easily one of the most influential TV producers in history -- has died. Age: 94. For boomers, just two names suffice here: "The Brady Bunch" and "Gilligan's Island."

In fact, make that just one major series. "The Brady Bunch" is one of those shows that spawned movies, new series, careers, books and a thousand other trifles; it was huge internationally, huge nationally -- a cultural phenom that had a complex appeal, and seemed to defy easy analysis, not that many didn't try.

Schwartz was a TV genius who seemed to understand exactly what worked on the small screen and what didn't -- these creations were not the sort that gave the literati comfort but were designed for a generation that came of age in the '60s, sitting before a Zenith TV in their living room, legs crossed, and dreaming that in some weird way, they were part of the lives they saw unfolding before them. 

Schwartz wasn't looking for Emmys -- although I'm fairly certain he earned some -- but comfort and reassurance. The world seemed to be aflame -- Vietnam, the Middle East, the Cold War -- yet the Skipper and Gilligan could be excused for not noticing.

The Sixties and their attendant social anxieties were checked at the door of the Brady household. Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice were getting it on, but Mike and Carol and Alice and Jan and Greg and Mike and Marcia and Cindy and Peter and Bobby  were worrying about that allergy Jan seemed to have to the family dog (and oh might they have to send poor Tiger away?) 

These were, of course, lily-white shows. To watch you would have no idea that the Civil Rights movement was under way, or that the fabric of American life was being rent, or that great historic changes were surging through the country or world. That was the whole idea: Comfort. The world would have to wait a few more years for Norman Lear. 

These highly polished fantasy set pieces had no bearing on the world at large. As American society underwent wrenching change, they were as removed from real life as possible, offering solace and escape to an audience that seemed to clamor for nothing else. Schwartz, a onetime comedy writer for Bob Hope and Red Skelton, was the auteur of the genre – a cultural giant whose shows are the enduring symbols of this Strangelovian era.

And if you really wanted to dive a little bit deeper on the subject -- and cultural historians certainly have -- the Bradys and Gilligan's little island community were utopias in a tumultuous sea: Refuges that abided by their own logic in a post-Kennedy-assassination world where nothing seemed to make sense any longer. 

Here's the AP obit:

Great niece Robin Randall said Schwartz died at 4 a.m. Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was being treated for an intestinal infection and underwent several surgeries.

His wife, Mildred, and children had been at his side. Sherwood Schwartz and his brother, Al, started as a writing team in TV’s famed 1950s “golden age,” said Douglas Schwartz, the late Al Schwartz’s son. “They helped shape television in its early days,” Douglas Schwartz said. “Sherwood is an American classic, creating ‘Brady Bunch’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ iconic shows that are still popular today. He continued to produce all the way up into his 90s.”

Sherwood Schwartz was working on a big-screen version of “Gilligan’s Island,” his nephew said. Douglas Schwartz, who created the hit series “Baywatch,” called his uncle a longtime mentor and caring “second father” who helped guide him successfully through show business.

Success was the hallmark of Sherwood Schwartz’s own career. Neither “Gilligan” nor “Brady” pleased the critics, but both managed to reverberate in viewers’ heads through the years as few such series did, lingering in the language and inspiring parodies, spinoffs and countless standup comedy jokes.

Schwartz had given up a career in medical science to write jokes for Bob Hope’s radio show. He went on to write for other radio and TV shows, including “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” He dreamed up “Gilligan’s Island” in 1964. It was a Robinson Crusoe story about seven disparate travelers who are marooned on a deserted Pacific Island after their small boat wrecks in a storm. The cast: Alan Hale Jr., as Skipper Jonas Grumby; Bob Denver, as his klutzy assistant Gilligan; Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer, the rich snobs Thurston and Lovey Howell; Tina Louise, the bosomy movie star Ginger Grant; Russell Johnson, egghead science professor Roy Hinkley Jr.; and Dawn Wells, sweet-natured farm girl Mary Ann Summers.

TV critics hooted at “Gilligan’s Island” as gag-ridden corn. Audiences adored its far-out comedy. Schwartz insisted that the show had social meaning along with the laughs: “I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications.” He argued that his sitcoms didn’t rely on cheap laughs. “I think writers have become hypnotized by the number of jokes on the page at the expense of character,” Schwartz said in a 2000 Associated Press interview. “When you say the name Gilligan, you know who that is. If a show is good, if it’s written well, you should be able to erase the names of the characters saying the lines and still be able to know who said it. If you can’t do that, the show will fail.”

“Gilligan’s Island” lasted on CBS from 1964 to 1967, and it was revived in later seasons with three high-rated TV movies. A children’s cartoon, “The New Adventures of Gilligan,” appeared on ABC from 1974 to 1977, and in 2004, Schwartz had a hand in producing a TBS reality show called “The Real Gilligan’s Island.”

The name of the boat on “Gilligan’s Island” — the S.S. Minnow — was a bit of TV inside humor: It was named for Newton Minow, who as Federal Communications Commission chief in the early 1960s had become famous for proclaiming television “a vast wasteland.”

Minow took the gibe in good humor, saying later that he had a friendly correspondence with Schwartz. TV writers usually looked upon “The Brady Bunch” as a sugarcoated view of American family life. The premise: a widow (Florence Henderson) with three daughters marries a widower (Robert Reed) with three sons. (Widowhood was a common plot point in TV series back then, since networks were leery of divorce.)

During the 1970s when the nation was rocked by social turmoil, audiences seemed comforted by watching an attractive, well-scrubbed family engaged in trivial pursuits. Schwartz claimed in 1995 that his creation had social significance because “it dealt with real emotional problems: the difficulty of being the middle girl; a boy being too short when he wants to be taller; going to the prom with zits on your face.”

The series lasted from 1969 to 1974, but it had an amazing afterlife. It was followed by three one-season spinoffs: “The Brady Bunch Hour” (1977), “The Brady Brides” (1981) and “The Bradys” (1990). “The Brady Bunch Movie,” with Shelley Long and Gary Cole as the parents, was a surprise box-office hit in 1995. It was followed the next year by a less successful “A Very Brady Sequel.”

Sherwood Schwartz was born in 1916 in Passaic, N.J., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His brother, already working for Hope, got him a job when Sherwood was still in college. “Bob liked my jokes, used them on his show and got big laughs. Then he asked me to join his writing staff,” Schwartz said during an appearance in March 2008, when he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “I was faced with a major decision — writing comedy or starving to death while I cured those diseases. I made a quick career change.” Besides his wife, Schwartz’s survivors include sons Donald, Lloyd and Ross Schwartz, and daughter Hope Juber.

——— Former Associated Press Writer Bob Thomas and AP Television Writer Lynn Elber contributed to this report.

 

Photo: Television writer and producer Sherwood Schwartz, gets a group hug and kiss from actresses in his TV shows in March 2008. The are, left, Florence Henderson of "The Brady Bunch," and Dawn Wells of "Gilligan's Island."

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