Although there are bumps on the way from the brilliant first season to the uneven fourth season, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” stands as a clever, thought-provoking and joyful creation – a pleasure that’s anything but guilty.
By Betsy Sherman
A white-hot media desire of mine was fulfilled in 2013: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was released as a boxed set by Shout! Factory (21 discs). I loved the show when I was a kid, appreciated it even more as an adult watching reruns (trimmed for more commercial time!) on cable, and coveted a shiny set of unadulterated episodes for my very own. This is what I now possess: a definitive collection of great-looking, complete versions of the CBS series’ nearly 150 episodes, plus bonus goodies. Although there are bumps on the way from the brilliant first season to the uneven fourth season, the series stands as a clever, thought-provoking and joyful creation – a pleasure that’s anything but guilty.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which debuted in September of 1959 and wrapped up in June of 1963, secured a place in history by being the first TV series told from a teenager’s point of view. From the opening blast of the eccentric, scat-sung theme song by Lionel Newman (Randy’s uncle), played over a slightly creepy cartoon of a teen boy peeping at girls through a knothole, the stage is set for something outside of the ‘50s sitcom norm. There’s a youthful energy to the show, powered in part by musical stings that give an extra oomph to a line of dialogue or a facial expression. That dialogue is often tongue-in-cheek, with wit that works on more than one level. Dobie is less like its suburban-set, plot-based contemporaries The Donna Reed Show and My Three Sons, and more like the lively shows for which it broke ground, such as Batman, Get Smart, and The Monkees, shows that cared more about comedic tone than about storyline.
Based on short stories by Max Shulman that also spawned the 1953 MGM musical The Affairs of Dobie Gillis starring dancer Bobby Van, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis puts a humorous spin on nothing less than the battle between idealism and realism. This seems appropriate, seeing how American voters would, during the early part of Dobie’s second season, reject Eisenhower-era holdover Richard Nixon in favor of the forward-looking John F. Kennedy. Dwayne Hickman, an experienced teen actor (although 25 when the series started) is instantly likeable as the All-American Everyboy. Hickman had impeccable comic timing and, oddly, mannerisms borrowed from Jack Benny. His Dobie believes in the best in people, and believes that his ability to love will carry him through life – which is fortunate, since he’s a so-so student with dubious career prospects. Hickman breaks the fourth wall as Dobie speaks directly to the audience about his travails, while sitting on a park bench next to a replica of Rodin’s The Thinker.
The show’s 39-episode first season, instantly recognizable because of Hickman’s bleached-blond hair (he went back to his natural dark hair the next year), is a gem. This is the season most people remember, the one that featured future movie stars Tuesday Weld (16 years old and awesomely talented) and Warren Beatty (he hung in there for four episodes). In it, writer Shulman and producer-director Rod Amateau establish Dobie as a high school junior who’s mad to find a mate. His heart throbs mainly for Weld’s Thalia Meninger, but also for babes-of-the-week with names like Delphine Quimby and Arrabella Parmalee. It introduces Dobie’s best friend and TV’s best-known beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver, later star of Gilligan’s Island)—he of the goatee, ripped sweatshirt and passion for Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and bongos. The Gillis family lives above their grocery store. Whereas indulgent mother Winnie (Florida Friebus) represents a book of verse, father Herbert (Frank Faylen, a former vaudeville trouper with great slapstick skill) is the ledger personified. But who can blame him for venting about a kid who’s allergic to helping out around the store (“I gotta kill that boy, I just gotta”)?
Shulman and Amateau set up an observation post at the intersection of romance and commerce. The premise that Dobie isn’t able to date the girl he wants if he doesn’t have cash to spend on her is not debated – it’s just the way things are. The would-be boyfriend identifies his stingy father as his biggest “roadblock.” Dobie’s effort to overcome the odds against him is hilariously laid out in episode two, “The Best Dressed Man.” In a classroom at Central High, rich narcissist Milton Armitage (Beatty) regales money-mad Thalia with a description of his wardrobe and its accoutrements.
Milton: “I have a tie rack for my ties, and shoe trees for my shoes. Made in England.”
Thalia: “The shoes?”
Milton: “The shoes of course, but the trees, too. I mean, you’d hardly put American trees – ”
Both in unison: “ – into English shoes!”
Thalia squeals, the lovesick Dobie grimaces. But the opportunity to best his rival comes when men’s shop proprietor Mr. Zeigler (Mel Blanc) sees Maynard in his scuzzy duds and bemoans the beatnik trend. Dobie offers to wear Zeigler suits to school, and thus inspire his classmates to dress better. Mr. Ziegler takes the bait. In the coming days, Dobie and Milton try to out-swank each other (to the consternation of the acerbic teacher trying to recite Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”). Milton rats Dobie out to Thalia; he’s stunned when she praises Dobie’s initiative. Alas, Dobie loses her respect when she finds out he’s not insisting that Mr. Zeigler pay him for advertizing the suits. Cue what will become a frequent episode ending:
Maynard: “Cheer up good buddy, you still got me.”
Dobie: “I’m afraid so, Maynard. I’m afraid so.”
The second season, even with the loss of Weld to the movies, hums along beautifully. Although Dobie’s still chasing the many successors to Thalia (Yvette, Whitney, Esme, etc.), his true-blue friendship with Maynard becomes equally crucial to the show. Denver’s screen time increases, with whole shows devoted to Maynard’s antics. While he still identifies himself as a “protest cat,” Maynard becomes softer and more childlike. And he gets the best catch-phrases. For example, if other characters start describing something dumb or weird or disgusting, a smiling Maynard will appear and ask “You rang?” (Laverne and Shirley paid homage to this for the entrances of Lenny and Squiggy). This season also saw the ascendance of two other supporting characters. Actress Sheila James gives unbridled nerve and fantastic verbal dexterity to Zelda Gilroy, a brainiac classmate (though not so hot in the looks department) with an unrequited yen for Dobie. And Steven Franken is a virtuoso of the patrician lockjaw dialect as Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., the replacement for Beatty’s Milton.
However, the show’s creators made a major miscalculation by placing high school graduation a little more than halfway through the season. Not long after an excellent, uncharacteristically serious episode in which the boys ponder the literary question, “Whither are we drifting?,” Dobie decides that he’ll enlist in the army rather than wait to be drafted. Where Dobie goes, Maynard goes too. In this case, it was a bad move for all concerned. What follows is a block of not-even-amusing episodes in which they’re stationed at a base not very far from home, so that Dobie’s parents and even Zelda can still be involved in their lives.
Thank goodness for season three, for a while at least. The boys are back home, and the whole gang goes to S. Peter Pryor Junior College, which is essentially grade thirteen of Central High. The Dobie-Maynard friendship undergoes some permutations: interestingly, Dobie starts describing himself as a bit of a heel when it comes to women, and Maynard functions as a Jiminy Cricket who tries to help him do the right thing. Startlingly, Dobie disappears for a while: this is because Hickman came down with pneumonia. The character’s Thinker interludes, which used to take place in the park, now take place in a black-background “limbo,” and feel more like lectures at us than chats with us. Sheila James gets more screen time, in piquant episodes such as “The Fast White Mouse,” in which Zelda wonders whether she might be a better biological match with Chatsworth than with Dobie. It almost looks as if Dobie will slow down and let Zelda catch him (there are a few Dobie-Zelda derailed-wedding episodes over the course of the series). But for this Zelda fan, the disconnect becomes glaring: what is this science prodigy doing at a rinky-dink junior college!!! Zelda, please, say these three letters for me: M-I-T!!! (happily, the actress, real name Sheila Kuehl, graduated from Harvard Law School and became a California legislator).
Even the best shows have final seasons that maybe should not have happened. Season four saw a name change to Max Shulman’s ‘Dobie Gillis’ but I like to call it “Dobie Gillis Rococo-a-go-go.” Among these 36 episodes there are storylines and settings of such extreme silliness that you’ll want to tear out your hair (Dobie’s anthropology class in the Amazon jungle, Dobie and Maynard vs. Boris and Natasha-like Soviet spies). Yet there are also delicately crafted bursts of patter and rat-a-tat matches of music with action that are as funny as anything in the series’ heyday.
Two Gillis cousins are introduced. “Dunky” (Bobby Diamond) a high schooler who’s a blatant throwback to first-season Dobie, is a washout. On the other hand, Tennessee-bred Cousin Virgil (Ray Hemphill) is a tonic. He’s not only an Elvis-clone singer looking for his big break, he’s also a conman, and Maynard is the only one who sees through him. But my choice for standout in season four is Doris Packer. Appearing since season one, first as Milton’s mother, then as Chatsworth’s, Packer is a cunning version of the dowager created by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers pictures. The Dobie writers obviously adored writing her one-liners, as her delivery maximized their wit (she describes her son’s lineage as “by money, out of gilt-edged securities”). Her presence brightened even the dimmest of episodes. On a more sober note, season four included something significant that previous seasons didn’t: African-American students in Dobie’s classes. None of these extras got a speaking part, but in 1963, their presence alone made a statement.
The Shout! Factory boxed set has a bonus disc with a (too short) interview with Hickman about his signature role; episodes of Love That Bob! in which a pre-Dobie Hickman co-starred as Bob Cummings’ nephew; an episode of The Stu Irwin Show, in which pre-Zelda James played Irwin’s daughter and Hickman played a classmate on whom she had a crush; Hickman singing, in character as Dobie, on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show; and the bizarre spectacle of Denver, as Maynard, and Ed Byrnes, as his character “Kookie” from Route 66, teaching hip slang to Pat Boone on the Coca-Cola sponsored variety series Coke Time.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.