By Tim Brady
One prolific School of Journalism alumnus gave us Dobie Gillis and a host of other iconic characters of the 1950s and 60s:
For a television series that aired for only four seasons more than half a century ago, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis has surprising durability. The characters Max Shulman (B.A. ’42) created became almost immediate icons of a generation that rested somewhere between the crew cut and bobby sox era of post-war America and the coffee shop and beatnik poses of late 1950s subculture.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was originally a pair of short story collections that Shulman wrote in 1951. They centered on a hapless University of Minnesota student named Dobie Gillis, muddling his way through a less than stellar college career. With references galore to Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and the U campus, the stories offer a unique and humorous portrait of the campus of the day, as well as its students and faculty—all exaggerated, of course.
It was in the wake of Shulman’s second book, I Was a Teen-Age Dwarf, that he and his production partners went to 20th Century Fox with the idea for a television series based on the Dobie Gillis stories. CBS bought the pilot and began airing the series in 1959. It became an immediate hit. The program was a novelty to television because it centered on the lives of teenage characters living and interacting outside the family. Though Dobie’s parents were major figures in the series and Dobie lived for a time in the family home, the central characters were primarily the students who peopled Dobie’s life. Grownups rarely if ever supplied plot resolutions, in contrast to other popular sitcoms of the day like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver.
The series was decidedly apolitical at a time when the country was on the verge of intense social unrest, but there was a definite nonconformity in its storylines and characters. The unresolved zaniness of its eccentric figures helped give rise to a brand of CBS comedies in the early 1960s that featured the sort of highly exaggerated characters and situations that were Shulman’s bread-and-butter, from The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island to Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes.
Shulman produced the series and wrote a number of its episodes. The eponymous hero, Dobie, played by Dwayne Hickman, was a frustrated young man who pined for popularity, success, and unattainable young women, not necessarily in that order. His best friend, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island fame, favored berets, had a goatee strapped to his chin, and liked to play bongo drums beneath one of the standard props of the series: a statue of The Thinker planted on the campus. Maynard’s eccentricities and deep fear of work were in sharp and humorous contrast to Dobie’s determinedly hapless pursuits of fortune and romance. Other characters were Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty), a campus rich kid and rival to Dobie; Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), the stunningly beautiful, aspirational love of Dobie’s life; and Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), a brainy and eager young pragmatist, who continually pursued Dobie despite his protests that he was not interested.
The characters evolved out of Shulman’s experiences as a college student at the University of Minnesota. A St. Paul kid born in 1919 and raised in the Selby-Dale neighborhood, Shulman grew up poor, hardworking, and with a habit of making up stories. With a vague idea of studying literature, he began his education at the University of Minnesota in 1936 but dropped out for a year to work at a grocery store. When he returned, it was to study journalism “because the English department was so dismal,” Shulman said in a 1988 interview. “Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate came after I left.”
Shulman’s gifts as a writer were quickly recognized in the journalism school, which happened to be loaded with talent. Sharing the main spotlight with Shulman at the time was Tom Heggen (B.A. ’41), an Iowan and nephew of novelist Wallace Stegner, who was building a reputation as a quirky columnist at the Minnesota Daily. Shulman also wrote a column for the Daily and later for Ski-U-Mah, a journal of humor published at the U. Shulman’s columns featured humor that typically centered on befuddled campus figures whose everyday trials and tribulations were heightened with overstatement and exaggeration. Besides writing columns for the Daily, Shulman also specialized in pranks, like the time he filled out a ballot for All-American football players that had arrived at the paper with the name of a fictitious Gopher tackle named Wally Stuneros. Observant readers will note that Stuneros spelled backwards reads “sore nuts.”
Shulman and Heggen were competitive writers in the small world of campus columnists in the early 1940s, both with high ambitions for fame in the world of publishing. Shulman was first to get the siren call. An editor from Doubleday came to Minneapolis in 1942, hunting for writing talent. Shulman’s name came up and the editor asked him to send some clips. On the basis of those, Doubleday offered him a contract for a humorous book on college life. Three months later, just before he entered the U.S. Army for the duration of World War II, the young writer presented Doubleday with a satire of college life at the University of Minnesota called Barefoot Boy With Cheek. The book became a surprise bestseller and launched Shulman’s career.
His wartime service consisted of writing public relations copy for the Army Air Force, work that gave him ample opportunity to continue his creative writing on the side. He cranked out two more novels before the end of the war, and, once mustered out of the Army, spent time working on a Broadway musical version of Barefoot Boy. Then it was off to Hollywood for a two-year stint as a writer for the movies. He settled down to raise a family in Connecticut in 1953, where, coincidentally, he became a neighbor and close friend of Robert Penn Warren, the esteemed poet, novelist, and former U English professor whose tenure in the English Department Shulman had just missed as an undergraduate.
In Connecticut, Shulman worked on another Broadway success called The Tender Trap, which was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds. He also did an uncredited polish on a screenplay based on the novel Mister Roberts, written by his old Daily competitor and friend, Tom Heggen. (Heggen died tragically in 1949 after penning Roberts, which became a Best Picture nominee in 1956 and won an Oscar for Jack Lemmon.)
Meanwhile, Shulman wrote a bestselling novel called Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! which was made into a popular movie starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Joan Collins. It was during this period that he wrote The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I Was a Teen-age Dwarf was published in 1959.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was cancelled in 1963, but Shulman’s writing career continued for many years after. He wrote a number of novels through the 1960s and 1970s, remained an active member of the Writers’ Guild, and wrote the screenplay for another major movie, House Calls, with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. House Calls had a follow-up television series that ran from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.
After his graduation from the U, Shulman made only occasional trips back to the Twin Cities, but a son, Daniel Shulman, has spent many years as an attorney in Minneapolis for the Gray, Plant, Mooty Law firm.
Max Shulman died in Los Angeles in 1988. Daniel, informs us that though his father’s books are out of print, all of them will soon be reissued in e-book form.