Monday, January 30, 2017

Monkeying Around

If you ever saw actor Denny Miller in anything, it was virtually impossible to forget him — even if you didn't remember his name.

At 6–foot–4, Miller was an imposing figure — especially with his chiseled (I suppose the modern term would be ripped) physique, which he parlayed into guest roles on many action/drama TV series and supporting roles in several movies. For many years he was the "Gorton's Fisherman" in TV commercials (a role that, because of the slicker he wore, concealed his physique).

As a young man, he played basketball at UCLA for John Wooden — a decade before Wooden won his first national championship.

And on this night in 1967, he played a method actor on Gilligan's Island. (The day before, Miller's alma mater, unbeaten and top–ranked UCLA, scored more than 100 points against the University of Illinois. It was the eighth time the Bruins cracked the century mark that season. That was amazing, considering it would be nearly 20 years before the three–point shot became a part of the game.)

Miller played Tongo the Ape Man on the episode "Our Vines Have Tender Apes" — except he wasn't really an ape man (although he did play Tarzan in a movie once). He was a method actor preparing to play an ape man in a movie. His mission on the island was to persuade the castaways that he really was an ape man. If he could do that, he figured he could become the most bankable Tarzan in movie history.

He carried with him a miniature tape recorder to keep a record of his adventures.

Gilligan (Bob Denver) was the first of the castaways to have an encounter with the ape man, who had come into Gilligan's hut and made himself at home.

Gilligan ran off to alert the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and the Professor (Russell Johnson); meanwhile, Tongo found Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise) gathering tropical fruit and absconded with their fruit.

The men organized a search party and went looking for Tongo. The girls remained in camp and tried to make themselves look ugly to repel the ape man. But he got into their hut and carried Ginger away.

(If you're into Gilligan's Island trivia, it is worth noting that, in real life, Miller was married to the original Ginger from the series pilot.)

Ginger escaped from Tongo by hitting him over the head with a coconut. Since Tongo had shown an interest in Ginger, the men wanted to use her as bait so they could capture Tongo, but she would have nothing to do with it.

So they turned to Mary Ann, who was nervous about the idea but agreed to do it, anyway.

And, with Mary Ann's help, they managed to capture Tongo.

Up until that point, no one — including the audience — knew that Tongo was really an actor. The audience had only just learned that his name was Tongo — when Ginger tried to communicate with him.

But after he was captured and cavorted around the bamboo cage in a pretend rage, the castaways left him alone, and he instantly calmed down, pulling out the miniature recorder (from where? I saw no pockets in the leopard skin he wore) and recording his thoughts. That was when the audience learned the truth.

Tongo kept up the pretense around the castaways, still hoping to fool them into believing he was an ape man. And he did — for awhile. The castaways were amazed how quickly he learned from them.

One of the funniest moments came when the Howells (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer) attempted to teach Tongo some table etiquette, and Mr. Howell tried to interpret Tongo's grunts as indicative of a Harvard background. When Tongo turned out to be a sloppy eater, Mr. Howell concluded that he was a "Yale man."

But then an orangutan showed up and blew Tongo's cover. The castaways learned who he really was.

(It was extremely odd for an orangutan to show up on a tiny island in the Pacific near Hawaii. Orangutans are found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia. The orangutan couldn't have been born on the castaways' island; to get there, it would have had to pilot its own boat.

(But little things like that seldom deterred the writers for Gilligan's Island.)

Anyway, like most of the visitors to the island, Tongo left without rescuing the castaways. Such departures were almost always done for selfish reasons. In this case, Tongo feared the castaways would reveal his poor behavior with the orangutan, and that would wreck his career.

Rather than permit that to happen, he left the castaways on the island. The impression was given that he had promised to take the castaways back to civilization with him, but that was all their assumption. Tongo never said anything of the kind.

But many of the visitors to the island did promise to take the castaways back to civilization and then, for one reason or another, went back on their words.

Perhaps that was the real lesson of Gilligan's Island: Trust no one. If it wasn't strictly applicable on this night 50 years ago, it was — and is — applicable most of the time.