Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver and Some Old TV Pals Are, Like, Back in Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis

updated 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Imitation," Fred Allen once observed, "is the sincerest form of television." Well, that's not entirely true. Lately, reunion shows seem to be the sincerest form of television. Witness Return to Mayberry, Still the Beaver, Eight Is Enough: A Family Reunion and a few fresh cases for Perry Mason. Now joining the roster of many happy returns is CBS' Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis, a reassembling of the gang from Central City, the mythical setting for one of TV's primary sources of nostalgia, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

For two hours this Sunday, Feb. 21, audiences will hear Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) called every name in the book. His ardent egghead admirer in the original 1959-63 series, Zelda (Sheila James), will call him Poopsie. Maynard G.—the "G" stands for Walter—Krebs(Bob Denver) will call him Good Buddy. Stuffed shirt Chats-worth Osborne Jr. (Steve Franken) will call him Dobie Do.

Conspicuous absences among the still-living cast members will be Tuesday Weld, who played the luscious Thalia Menninger, and Warren Beatty, who played Milton Armitage, Dobie's high school rival for Thalia's affections. Hickman, co-producer of the project, had considered asking Beatty to reprise the role. "But," he says with a grin, "having seen Warren in Ishtar, I wasn't sure he could play comedy."

Oh, that boy—still mischievous after all these years. "The movie has the sweetness and innocence of the '50s," says Hickman, 53, a CBS programming executive (now on leave) who has supervised such shows as M*A*S*H, Simon & Simon and Designing Women. Hickman thinks the time is right to bring back not only the head but the rest of Dobie Gillis. "The '70s were filled with violence and antiheroes," he says. "But now the '80s seem to enjoy an innocence similar to the '50s, and small heroes like Dobie are okay."

This time around, our small hero finds himself—as Maynard would say—in like, wow, big trouble. Dobie, who's inherited the town pharmacy and grocery store from his father, is married to Zelda. Conflicts arise when he excites the hormones of rich widow Thalia (Connie Stevens took the role because Tuesday Weld had other commitments). But when the noble Dobie spurns her attentions, Thalia puts a price on his crew cut head. Maynard returns to Central City after a 25-year absence to help save the town from ruin. There's also a subplot involving Dobie's son, Georgie (Scott Grimes), and Chatsworth's daughter, Chatsie (coincidentally played by Connie Stevens' daughter, Tricia Leigh Fisher). Dobie will again feel obliged, as he did each week, to sit in front of a bad copy of Rodin's The Thinker and pour out his heart about the bewildering behavior of the opposite sex.

Unlike Sheila James, 46, who reclaimed the role of Zelda on the condition that it not get in the way of her teaching schedule at Loyola Law School, Hickman signed on hoping the TV movie would resuscitate his performing career. "I wanted to get back into acting, and I figured the movie was a good place to start," he says. "Now I just have to sit here at home and see if the phone rings." Hickman left acting in 1970, heading for Las Vegas and an unsatisfying stint as entertainment director of the Howard Hughes' Landmark Hotel before joining CBS in 1977. "I'm really a quiet, shy sort of guy, a homebody," says Dwayne. "Vegas was all wrong for me."

Of course, when the Los Angeles-born Hickman was a kid, acting seemed all wrong for him too. Older brother Darryl, now 55 and a TV writer-producer, had broken into the biz first as a child actor, and Dwayne had no intention of following. "But I was always going to the studio when Darryl was working," Hickman recalls. "Eventually they needed a little boy for an extra, and there I was. Actually I hated it. I was shy and terrified by the whole thing." Hickman overcame his stage fright enough to make a few other B movies and, starting in 1955, to be come a regular on The Bob Cummings Show, playing Bob's perpetually bewildered nephew, Chuck. Five seasons later, Dwayne was cast as that terminally lovelorn Gillis boy.

In real life Hickman wasn't much luckier with women than his TV alter ego. His first marriage, to Carole Christiansen in 1963, ended in divorce after nine years; their son, John, 24, now sells real estate in San Diego. His second marriage, to Joanne Papile in 1977, folded after four years. Since 1983 he's been married to actress Joan Roberts, 33. "Heads sure did roll before I came along," says Roberts, who lives with Hickman in a two-bedroom Santa Monica condo. Adds her husband: "It took me a long time to get it right, but when I did, powwwwwww!"

One of the special joys of the reunion show was getting back together with Bob Denver, whose career has run the gamut from "Hey, good buddy" to "Hey, skipper"—his salutation to Alan Hale Jr. on Gilligan's Island. As a matter of fact, Maynard explains his long absence from Central City by saying that he's been away on an island someplace.

"This was the easiest project I've ever worked on, almost like a vacation," says Denver, 53, whose character, Maynard, was as horrified at the notion of work as at the idea of shaving off his signature goatee. "Everyone wanted to be there." And most of the credit, adds Denver, goes to good buddy Hickman. "Working with him again was better than starting your day with raisin bran. He was always wearing that damn grin."

In the beginning Denver had about the same amount of interest in a showbiz career as Hickman did. Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., he moved to L.A. as a teenager and subsequently enrolled in the pre-law program at Loyola. After being pressed into service as the house manager for the university theater in 1954, he was encouraged to try out for The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. "I played a young, nervous seaman, and that's just what they got," says Denver. "I was terrified."

But it was probably first-class training for his later role as the young, nervous seaman on Gilligan's Island, a role he landed the year after Dobie's demise. Since Gilligan's three-year run, Denver's career has taken something of a dive, marked by such undistinguished series as 1968-70's The Good Guys and 1973's Dusty's Trail. Denver's personal life has been scarcely less bumpy. He has three children (Patrick, 27, Megan, 24, and Emily, 15) from two of his three failed marriages. Denver was married to Marjorie Ryan from 1960 to '66 and to Jean Webber from 1967 to '70; he refuses to divulge the name of his third wife—whom he wed in 1971—or when they were divorced. He also pleaded guilty to possession of narcotics paraphernalia way back in '71. "The whole thing was silly—just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," says Denver, who has since found a place for himself with wife No. 4, actress Dreama Peery, 37, and their 4-year-old son, Colin. "It's funny, but every once in a while you figure you've done something right," says Denver, who maintains homes in Las Vegas and Hawaii. "That something was when I met Dreama."

Enough about the present. Let's put on some torn sweatshirts, bang some bongos and, man, make like Central City, 1959, all over again. "It was like a reunion of best friends from college who have a lot to catch up on," said Sheila James, giving her best legal summation. "But it seemed like we had just left school on Friday and were back on Monday."

—Written by Joanne Kaufman, reported by Angela Blessing

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