Not one of … The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Although I spent four sweet years working on a top-rated CBS series, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” I actually started my television acting career in the first series to be produced on film, “Trouble With Father,” starring Stu and June Erwin. I was 9 years old and it was 1950. I spent six years on that (ABC) show and, later, in 1959, while I was attending UCLA, after a few years of free-lancing, I was cast as Zelda Gilroy on “Dobie Gillis”.
I had actually worked with Dwayne Hickman earlier on the Stu Erwin show, where he played a hapless basketball player and friend of my character, Jackie Erwin. Later, when Dwayne was on “The Bob Cummings Show,” directed by Rod Amateau, we met again, and I got to meet some of the people who would move over to the “Dobie Gillis” set later, at Fox Western. Fox Western was a little auxiliary Fox lot where we made some of the early TV shows, at the corner of Sunset and Western.
When I went on my first interview for the show, since Rod and Dwayne both knew me, I was sent over to talk to the show’s creator and producer, Max Shulman. I walked into his office and wondered where he might be, only to see him appear apparently out of nowhere in a chair overlarge for him, barely to be seen over his desk. In other words, Max was about my height. He asked me to read the first line Zelda has in the first show. “I love you,” I read. “You’re hired,” Max said. He later told me that I was actually hired because I was the only girl he’d interviewed that day who was shorter than he was.
Working with Dwayne and Bob Denver [who later became even more famous as Gilligan on “Gilligan’s Island] and Tuesday Weld and (in the first year) Warren Beatty, and Steve Franken and Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus and Bill Schallert and so many other talented people was like a dream. We had wonderful times on the set and we always thought the work was good-funny, professional, tight and real.
In the first year, our characters were in high school and, after that, in junior college. Life for our characters was earnest and full of the value of friendship, even if we often had to rediscover it at the end of a show in which we had been tempted to sacrifice it for some selfish end. We always came back to the friendship. We were also a bunch of misfits, both in our characters and in our lives.
Dobie was a poet and a dreamer, who wanted any girl so long as she wasn’t Zelda. Zelda only wanted Dobie, and was constantly working on him to excel, even though she was the one with brains and talent and drive. Thalia (Tuesday Weld) wanted Dobie to earn lots of money. Everyone wanted life to be something other than what it was but, in the end, always did the right thing anyway.
In our real lives, we were just as sweet but non-conformist. Ten years after the series ended, we gathered for our first reunion movie. We took one look at each other’s lives and couldn’t stop laughing. Dwayne was dating a very young woman. Bob was dating a woman, one of the Little People, who came up to about his waist in height. And I was dating a woman … end of story. America’s teenagers had grown up, all right!
The fact that I could be open about my sexual orientation by then was a testament to the change in America’s consciousness about private lives. It was still the case, then and now, however, that most actors don’t feel they can come out and keep their careers. My experience with CBS was certainly exemplary of the day.
At the end of the third year of the series, CBS and Fox decided they’d film a pilot for a spinoff series featuring Zelda in the lead. It was a heady time for me, of course. I was allowed to participate in casting, developing story line, things that a 21-year-old actress could only dream about. Apparently, CBS was fairly high on the show and it looked good for success. I was let out of my contract with “Dobie” so I could promise to film the new series if it sold.
Then one evening, after shooting, our director asked me to take a walk with him. We walked across the lot and got into his car, then simply sat there. Talk ranged over a number of things, mostly trivial, and then he told me that the pilot was not going to be pushed by CBS. Then-President Jim Aubrey had stated he found me “too butch” and that was it. Since I was already in a long-term, but very clandestine, relationship with another young woman (not in the industry), and since that relationship had been discovered by alums in the sorority I belonged to at UCLA, and since I had been expelled by the sorority, an act reported to the UCLA administration, I figured that the word had gotten out that I was a lesbian. I felt like someone had poured cold water over my head and down my neck. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t talk.
Since I was no longer under contract to “Dobie,” and since they had decided that Dobie and Maynard (Bob Denver) would be in the Army for the fourth year, that was virtually and suddenly the end of Zelda on the show. And virtually the end of my career.
No one ever talks to you, of course, about why. Actors know very little of what goes on behind the scenes, so I don’t know whether my private life was a topic of administrative review. In the larger sense, I certainly never knew whether the network was good to our show or a pain in the neck. I do know that the cast and crew of that show were the best I’d ever seen and we remain friends to this day.
Sheila James Kuehl was known as Sheila James when she appeared on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” She is now a California state senator.