Wednesday, 7 June 2017

An Odd Affection For Turkeys

The ultra rich are generally not sympathetic people in television comedies, but there was one notable exception: Mr and Mrs Thurston Howell the III on Gilligan’s Island.

It would have been easy to have made them snooty and snobbish; Jim Backus’ Howell character descended from an earlier character on radio that was. But instead Howell and his wife Lovey came across as people who had fun with their money, kind of like we picture ourselves if we were rich. Natalie Schafer’s Lovey strikes me a woman who felt born to be an enthusiastic party-giver.

Schafer apparently knew a little something about wealth. Her father was a Manhattan stock broker. In 1930 (see picture to the right), she was living on her own and was hardly a star, but she had a maid. She was always well dressed off-stage; various newspaper articles about her when Gilligan was on the air involve fashion.

The first mention of her acting I can find is in a Jewish newspaper in September 1920; she was 19 and appearing at a benefit in New York for cardiac children. In 1926, a newspaper article mentioned she was an actress leasing an apartment on East 53rd Street. The following year she was in a stock company in Atlanta. By 1930, she was on Broadway, as well as appearing in the Vitaphone Varities short Poor Fish, shot at the Warners Bros.’ Flatbush studio. She signed up for a play in Los Angeles in 1933 where she married actor Louis Calhern (shaving eight years off her age on her marriage license), then spent time on stage in New York and Boston.

We’ll get to how she landed on one of the most critically-panned sitcoms in a moment. First, a couple of stories from the New York Herald Tribune about her career. Interestingly, she’s never quoted in these columns. She’s paraphrased. This is from April 26, 1942.
Natalie Schafer in Hit Show At Last, but Misses Turkeys
By Nathaniel Benchley

DID you ever think what a marvelous interview you could have with an actor who hated the stage and everything to do with it, and who had taken it up only on the insistence of his family, while secretly he longed to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a lawyer?
He would be the kind who, during his moments off stage, would sneak back to his law books (which his family had forbidden him to keep) while his old father and mother sat out front and beat their palms raw for an encore of his last act, an impersonation of Lionel Barrymore. His big break would come during a courtroom scene in his third year on Broadway, when a district attorney in the audience would notice his natural flair for the law and he would be offered a trial job in the Circuit Court of Appeals, which he would conduct so successfully that after a few seasons he would grow a beard like Charles Evans Hughes’s and would be able to support his parents. But you will say, I am dreaming. True.
Our subject for today, Miss Natalie Schafer, has absolutely nothing in common with the person described above, other than that she is different from the general run of actors and actresses. Different, that is, in that she didn’t appear in her high-school dramatic plays, work as a chorus girl and under-study until her Big Chance came along. She just stepped into a feature role in a play and has been doing feature roles ever since. Like, for instance, her present part as Alison DuBois in “Lady in the Dark.” Only her plays have not always been as successful as “Lady in the Dark.” Some of them have been outright flops—but that’s giving away the plot.
Instead of studying at Stockbridge or Mme. Ouspenskaya’s, Miss Schafer got her early training the hard way, by teaching drama to small children. She had never had any acting experience herself, but she had a working idea of the way people ought to act, and by teaching it to little girls she had a chance to see what her ideas looked like. She also had a chance to do a good bit of acting, since she would act out all the parts to give the children the idea.
In short, it was a dream set-up, since she had a happy group of children who did nothing but copy her and who were not old enough or experienced enough to get obnoxious about their acting. And there is, Miss Schafer assures us, that is more obnoxious than a child actor who is turning prematurely ham. So, after about a year of this, she reasoned that she was a seasoned actress and started out in search of a part. This took six months and ended by proving that you should never be truthful about your age.
She ran across Charles Wagner, who was casting plays for stock, and when he asked her how old she was she added five years to her age, just to be refreshingly different. Wagner, a firm believer in astrology, looked up her supposed number in his little book and found that she was just full of good luck, so hired her on the idea that she would be a good omen for the show. How the show fared is not recorded, but it was certainly a good omen for her.
She played stock for ten weeks and then popped right into a leading role in “The Nut Farm” with Pat O’Brien and Wallace Ford. Then she was in a little number called “Ada Beats the Drum,” after which came an unspecified number of full-blown turkeys. In one season she was in four different plays, which, by counting up the rehearsal time and subtracting that from the length of a season, you can see made each play run on an average of three-and-a-half days, not including matinees.
Curiously enough, Miss Schafer has an odd affection for turkeys, since they give a girl a chance to play a lot of different parts in quick succession. When she is in a hit that lasts for three months or more she begins to get restless and longs for the good old days when you had an appointment with a casting director on the day following your opening night. Contrary to make actors who on a moment’s notice will drag out press clippings of all their successes, Miss Schafer likes to remember her flops, because they were so interesting.
Now, however, she seems to be saddled with a permanent hit, so she casts around for other things to keep her busy between performances. She is sincere and energetic in her desire to make some sort of contribution to the war effort, and it was only after it was firmly explained to her that coastal patrol ships are manned by men only that she settled on a non-combatant activity such as the Theater Wing Canteen.
Here’s an unbylined story from May 30, 1943. This version of her life story is a bit different; it talks about attending acting class. The story doesn’t reveal it was the Merrill School in Mamaroneck, New York, and Schafer studied diction and dramatics under Katharine Cornell.
Actress in Seventeen Failures Before She Landed in Hit Show
NATALIE SCHAFER, who comes on stage to complicate the second act of the comedy “The Doughgirls,” is a record holder of sorts, for she has appeared in seventeen plays which never achieved a run of more than a few weeks before she had the pleasure of unpacking her trunks backstage at the Lyceum and settling down.
Miss Schafer is not advocating repetition of her own rocky road, but she feels that it is becoming more and more difficult for beginners to get actual theater training and she is grateful for the many parts she had before she hit her long-run stride several seasons ago in “At Home Abroad.”
Miss Schafer’s career nearly ended with her first appearance. After her graduation from dramatic school her first job was that of one of the “stars” of an Atlanta stock company. The other (and genuine) stars were Madge Kennedy, Walter Connolly and Sidney Blackmar.
In their first play, a yacht on which they were all traveling collided with an iceberg and all passengers rushed on deck to take the lifeboats. When Miss Schafer did so she entered calmly buttoning white kid gloves with a boutonniere in the jacket of her tailored suit and a dashing veil on her ultra-smart hat. That was not particularly good characterization, but the thing that brought gales of laughter from the audience; gales which grew and grew, was that where her skirt short have been was only the briefest pair of pink panties.
Having started as a “star,” Natalie felt it beneath her to accept anything except featured roles, and in rapid succession and in far-apart places she found herself in and out of the aforementioned seventeen failures. It was not until she went into the Chinese fantasy “Lady Precious Stream” that she had a taste of a near-hit.
Miss Schafer works at the Stage Door Canteen as a dish washer on Sunday nights.
Now we jump to when she appeared on Gilligan’s Island. The Los Angeles Times syndicate likely published this. It is from November 7, 1965. Stunningly, she decided to try out for the role of Mrs. Howell because she thought it would be a flop.
Miss Schafer Is Eversharp

Television may have cast Natalie Schafer on a desert island (Gilligan’s Island), but that’s just not keeping her from living it up in grand style. She plays the wealthy socialite Mrs. Thurston Howell III (wife of co-star Jim Backus). And as such, she just about “out characters” the other characters in the CBS comedy series.
Week in and week out, you’ll find Natalie romping across the island in the zaniest of get-ups and for that, she can take credit.
“The original idea was to have Mrs. Howell dress in tweed skirts, sweaters and low-heeled shoes,” explained Natalie, “but I’ve never worn low-heeled shoes in my life. And tweed skirts are too scratchy.
“So I decided Mrs. Howell should wear mad clothes—crazy hats, slacks with ruffly tops, gloves and jewelry with sports clothes. And pearls. At first the producers and writers were aghast and they fought the idea. But I finally won.”
Natalie does her own shopping for the clothes she wears on the show. And now that the series is in color, she’s looking for even crazier costumes. She even wanted to borrow one of Hedda Hopper’s hats for an episode. But Hedda balked.
The actress, who studied costume designing before becoming a performer and who in private life is quite a fashion plate, openly admits that after a year she hasn’t adjusted to working in a series. “The idea of being tied down has always terrified me. I love to be free to travel . . . to wait for that phone to ring to tell me about a new play, a movie role, TV in Paris.”
Why did she settle down on Gilligan’s Island? “Because I didn’t think it would last, and besides the pilot was made in Honolulu. Now, I really have to fight myself to keep from getting bored.”
And how does she accomplish that? “Well,” she replied, “I’m spending my free time on the set doing needlepoint. Right now, I’m working on a piece that says ‘This Too Shall Pass.’”
‘This Too Shall Pass’ doesn’t describe Gilligan’s Island; I’m sure it must still be playing on some channel somewhere. Natalie Schafer may have had an odd affection for turkeys, but she misjudged one that gave her her most famous role.


  1. the image of Natalie Schaffer in pink panties is burned into my brain...

  2. I was surprised...Saw her last night in the British import television series " Sherlock Holmes " with Ronald Howard from 1955. I remember her playing the very same society type in Fritz Lang's " Secret Beyond The Door " over at Universal from 1947. She was very good. She was one of many underrated actresses. Yes, according to Russell Johnson, she really didn't think " Gilligan " would be picked up. Just wanted the time in Hawaii. In 1964, her agent called and stunned her with the news that they were called back to rework the first episode with the three new cast members. Natalie told Russell that she put down the phone and said something like:" Oh lord...the " Bleep "thing sold!!!!!!" It made her a house hold name. It has been playing non stop somewhere since it went into re-runs in 1968

  3. The Sherlock Holmes series with Ronald Howard was produced in France (by an American, Sheldon Reynolds). That's probably what Natalie referred to when she said "TV in Paris."
    Her dad was a stockbroker and she struck out on her own for an acting career - sounds almost like Dina Merrill's story (her father was E.F. Hutton).

  4. ‘This Too Shall Pass’ doesn’t describe Gilligan’s Island; I’m sure it must still be playing on some channel somewhere.

    Yep. Weekday afternoons on MeTV.