Dobie Gillis found a winner by making its lead a loser

Dobie Gillis found a winner by making its lead a loser

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Dobie Gillis’ journey to television begins with the stuff that stress dreams are made of: a demotion from college to high school. The character’s creator, author and humorist Max Shulman, got his start satirizing campus life at the University Of Minnesota, and it was in that collegiate atmosphere that Shulman found his voice—and that of his signature character. The literary Dobie’s age, IQ, and major vary from story to story, but one characteristic remains consistent: Dobie Gillis wants a girl. He just doesn’t know which one. The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, the title of the short story collection and subsequent TV series that would bring the character to prominence, is less a description of its protagonist’s Casanova-like prowess and more a summary of his fickle affections. College-age Dobie has a working knowledge of post-war mating rituals, but he fails to execute these customs and the complicated plots they frequently entail.

In other words, Shulman’s creation was a born sitcom hero. The situation comedy boasts a proud lineage of lovable losers, one that was established even as early as The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis’ 1959 debut. Jackie Gleason had already played two such blue-collar schmoes—first as aircraft riveter Chester A. Riley in the original TV version of The Life Of Riley, then as perpetual schemer Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. The series that would later lend a star and a regular director to Dobie Gillis, The Bob Cummings Show, centered on a protagonist who seemed to have it all—exciting career, flight training, good looks—but just couldn’t find The One. These were important distinctions for the sitcom to make as it began to expand on its radio roots and put marquee names and faces to the everymen and women depicted in its scripts. “These people may have the charm and charisma necessary to make a go in showbiz,” the series seemed to say, “but they’re beset by everyday troubles and defeats just like anybody else.”

The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis distinguished itself by making the everyman the everyteen. Not that high schoolers were persona non grata before Dwayne Hickman first addressed Dobie Gillis viewers from in front of a replica Rodin: Leave It To Beaver and The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet both devoted plenty of screen time to their own adolescent protagonists. Previously co-starring on The Bob Cummings Show, Hickman was already a member of TV High School’s student body. (Echoing Dobie’s academic trajectory, Hickman too had collegiate ties, as the former child actor was studying at Loyola Marymount University when television came calling.) His Chuck MacDonald had a curious effect on the show, which was known as Love That Bob during its syndicated run: He made Cummings’ adventures as a conniving, womanizing Hollywood photographer a hit with younger viewers. Still, that split between middle-aged and teenaged characters never truly gelled, as related by Henry Castleman, co-author of Watching TV: Six Decades Of American Television.

As a kid, Love That Bob never made any sense to me. Why are they focusing on this old geezer, Bob Cummings, who’s running around after pretty girls. He’s much too old! The idea of an older swinger-playboy type seemed incompatible with the teen culture we were used to.

Chuck’s appeal went double for the young women in the audience. In the role, Hickman projected an approachable warmth, a boy-next-door charm that was more Tommy Kirk than James Dean. By the time he won the role of the newly teenaged Dobie Gillis, Hickman was so associated with his previous character that production required him to bleach his brown hair blond—a decision that was reversed for seasons two, three, and four, after the bleaching treatment started taking chunks out of Hickman’s hairline. At the dawn of the ’60s, America wasn’t prepared to see a bald teen idol standing beside its Wally Cleaver and Ricky Nelson.

In fact, Wally and Ricky were partially responsible for the time warp in Dobie’s academic career. As Gerard Jones notes in Honey, I’m Home! Sitcoms: Selling The American Dream, 20th Century Fox initially balked at Shulman’s proposal for a series based on his collegiate stories, concerned that “not enough people cared about college kids.” At the time, the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics reported that less than 46 percent of high-school graduates went on to college; during a period that put the “broad” in broadcasting, a university setting would make Dobie Gillis a niche attraction at best and an elitist deterrent at worst. When the studio offered a story editor position and the chance to write the occasional script, Shulman traded lecture halls for classrooms, the Kozy Kampus Kave for the malt shop, and obnoxious roommates for nagging parents. The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis would invent the myth of the American teenager out of necessity.

But Dobie’s status as primetime’s first teen is merely the stuff of encyclopedia summaries, and his demographics would only define the show for so long. Besides, the sitcom’s most potent theme is one that would be entirely unfamiliar to post-war students at the U Of M: wanting. That’s a wanting that goes beyond Dobie’s romantic failings, too: Removed from the erudite environments of Shulman’s short stories, The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis found its own form of sly sophistication by satirizing the love of money. In Dobie’s world, there’s no higher power than the almighty dollar, so lack of and the quest for cash drives much of the show’s run. That relative poverty is what relates the hero to the average viewer; it’s also what keeps him away from the ultimate object of his affections, Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), and separates him from his aristocratic adversaries, Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty, who lasted five episodes before bolting for the movies) and Chatsworth Osborne Jr. (Steve Franken). Thalia is singularly greedy, but with good reason: She has a family to look after, with a sister who married a layabout and a father with a kidney condition and so on. She explains it all in the show’s pilot, a laundry list of maladies that became something of a catchphrase for the character.

At home, the Gillises are no help in the money department. Father Herbert (Frank Faylen) is a miserly grocer with no understanding of the first young generation to enjoy anything close to spending power. Those characteristics are only exacerbated by Florida Friebus’ Winifred Gillis, who feeds Herbert’s penny-pinching ways by pinching bills from the cash register and handing them over to her only son. Just as Dobie was a different kind of TV teenager, the Gillises were a different kind of TV family. In Last Season Of Innocence: The Teen Experience In The 1960s, author Victor Brooks writes of a fundamental change made by The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis:

Unlike most situation comedies, the teen-parent dialogue does not occur in a living room, kitchen, or study but in the grocery store, as the ill-tempered, overly critical Herbert Gillis alternates between stacking cans of peas and criticizing Dobie as lazy and useless, a confrontation softened only by the interventions of mother/wife Winnie, who attempts to remind her husband of the complexities of his own adolescent years.  

The place that brings Dobie, Herbert, and Winifred together is a symbol of their regular-folks struggle, a site that is a constant reminder to Dobie of all the ways he can’t get ahead in life. The store is a neutral ground, given homey and intimate dimension by the two-camera setup director Rod Amateau lifted from his time on The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show. (Coincidentally, Burns produced the first attempt to bring Dobie to the small screen, with his son Ronnie in the title role.) Yet the setting is also a war zone of culture clash, where the nose-to-the-grindstone values of the Greatest Generation butt heads with the baby boomers for whom “work” was a four-letter word—rendered as such by the helpless cries of Dobie’s best friend, beatnik caricature Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver).

Maynard was another “first” for the series, an avowed member of the beat generation who adores Dizzy Gillespie but probably couldn’t quote a lick of Allen Ginsberg if his life depended on it. (Not that CBS Standards And Practices would allow any of its character to even mention “Howl.”) Authenticity be damned, Denver’s character still managed to challenge the TV status quo in important ways, even reconfiguring The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis’ core principles. As the counterculture assembled offscreen, Maynard was a conscientious objector to the show’s have/have not split. He represented a third column in the Dobie Gillis dynamic, one not for strivers like Dobie, Mr. Gillis, or Zelda Gilroy (future politician Sheila James Kuehl as Dobie’s not-so-secret admirer), nor for the comfortable Osbornes or Armitages. To use a phrase his hepcat slang precedes, Maynard dropped out, a philosophical denial of wanting and losing that’s essentially an acceptance of both. Played for laughs among the era’s buttoned-down straight arrows, Maynard’s attitude could also serve as a front for smuggling in some subversive-for-its-time sentiment like the nuclear anxiety expressed in season three’s “Eat, Drink And Be Merry…For Tomorrow, Ker-Boom!”

The perpetual losing streak depicted in The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis was often a life-imitating-art prospect, and one of those losses nearly cost the show a breakout character. Just as production was gearing up in the first season, Denver was drafted by the U.S. Army, prompting an elaborate in-show sendoff in which Maynard is similarly drafted, handing over his bedroom, ragged sweatshirt, and role as Central High’s resident beatnik to his cousin, Jerome (Michael J. Pollard). But the Jerome era of Dobie Gillis wouldn’t last long: Denver was deemed unfit for service and was able to rejoin the show after missing only a single episode. His absence still makes for one of the most surreal passages in the show’s run, an episode made all the stranger by Pollard’s one week on the show overlapping with Warren Beatty’s brief turn as Milton Armitage. Neither possesses the proper sort of energy for this type of show, though in Beatty’s case that might be a symptom of his wanting nothing to do with a TV sitcom. Belting a rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” in “The Sweet Singer Of Central High,” Beatty displays an admirable conviction—but he also looks like he’s having no fun whatsoever. It’s difficult to imagine Dobie lasting one season—let alone 147 episodes—with friends like these.

But even the friends that did stick around would knock Dobie off of whatever small pedestals he occupied. At a time when it was common practice for networks to order 30-plus episodes of a show per season, Shulman and crew delivered no less than 36 half-hours for each of Dobie Gillis’ four seasons—with season one comprising a staggering-by-2014-standards 39 episodes. Working on that kind of schedule, retooling occurred quickly and frequently. Weld was reportedly a difficult presence on set, so Thalia made only two appearances beyond the first season. Partway through season two, Dobie and Maynard graduate from Central and enlist in the Army for 15 episodes. (There was no way the military could turn Denver down this time.) Following the boys’ honorable discharge, they enroll at the local college, restoring Shulman’s creation to his native habitat.

As the episode count increased, Dobie began to lose control of the show that bears his name. It’s a common TV symptom, but it’s especially appropriate in this instance: Viewers and the show’s writers alike were drawn away from Dobie’s average-guy charms toward the more colorful promise of stories focusing on Maynard or Zelda. The shift aligned with Dobie Gillis’ peak popularity, too, as its back-to-back finishes in the Nielsen Top 30 only came after Dobie’s romantic woes ceased to be the show’s primary source of inspiration. By season four, Hickman was telling stories that would’ve been his own in a previous life. One of the series’ final episodes, “Beauty Is Only Kin Deep,” finds the kids and the Gillises teaming up to makeover lovelorn professor Dr. Imogene Burkhart (Jean Byron), a story Dobie hardly factors into, save for Hickman’s narrational interludes. The show had come a long way from Zelda trying to remake her Dobie-kins into a pompadoured rock success at the beginning of season two.

It was an appropriately circular course for a scene stealer who’d risen to star status—other scene stealers rose up over the course of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis and swiped the spotlight, too. A sense of defeat may have defined the comedy of Dobie Gillis, but the series and its hero turned out to be a winner in the long run: The show was a syndication staple for decades, and its influence trickled down to the many high-school-set programs that followed in its wake. Dobie Gillis codified several character types that would wander those TV hallways—the countercultural idiot savant, the hard-headed girl Friday, the poor little rich kid—but its most important legacy is tied up in the guy who had to take his victories where he could get them. Dobie is one of TV’s many lovable losers, but he’s more important as a stepping stone toward future campus milquetoasts like Happy Days’ Richie Cunningham, Boy Meets World’s Cory Matthews, and That ’70s Show’s Eric Foreman. They’re average guys who serve as the entry point to a sitcom, but these shows don’t truly get going until they open up a bit to show the truly interesting situations and events orbit around them. (In light of his extracurricular activities, there’s a bit of Dobie in How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, too.) The good news for the character who gets nothing but bad news is that their kind will never go out of style. Generations will always clash, fortune will always be elusive, teenagers will always pine for other teenagers—whether they were teenagers to begin with, or just a smart-alecky college kid masquerading as a teen for the purposes of television.  

Next time: Beep… boop. Beep… boop. Todd VanDerWerff looks back at 24 on the eve of its resurrection.

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