Natalie Schafer was the only real-life millionaire on Gilligan's Island
She raked in cash from real estate then donated it to a hospital… and a poodle?
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You know how the theme song goes: "A millionaire and his wife!" Sorry, Thurston, it turns out that Lovey Howell should have gotten first credit as "the millionaire." The dirty little secret of Gilligan's Island — and much of Sixties television in general — is that actors hardly made any money off of reruns. Most Hollywood folks simply did not foresee these TV series aired repeatedly without stop for more than half a century.
Take it from Mary Ann herself, Dawn Wells, who said this in a 2016 interview with Forbes:
"A misconception is that we [Gilligan's Island stars] must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals. We didn’t really get a dime. I think my salary — of course, I was low on the totem pole, Ginger [Tina Louise] and Thurston [Jim Backus] got more — was $750 a week. Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone!"
Those small screen stars who were really "rolling in the dough" often found their money elsewhere. Take Denver Pyle, for example. He may have played country bumpkins like Briscoe Darling and Uncle Jesse Duke, but in reality, the Pyle was a true Jed Clampett, earning piles of cash from oil.
Similarly, Natalie Schafer, "Lovey Howell" herself, amassed millions. She and her husband, fellow actor Louis Calhern, invested in Beverly Hills real estate when the getting was cheap. The couple was married from 1933–42, but their holdings paid off handsomely.
Upon her death in 1991, Schafer bequeathed $2 million to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital, which renovated and renamed an outpatient wing in her honor. "She was a very generous, wonderful human being, and very loyal to her friends, and I think we can see that through her relationship to the fund," a spokesperson for the Motion Picture and Television Fund said at the time.
And here we come to a legend surrounding Schafer's death and wealth.
"Actress Natalie Schafer, who played Mrs. Howell on Gilligan's Island, reportedly left a fat chunk of her estate to her poodle," the Seattle Times wrote in 2007. Similarly, Mental Floss explained, "Schafer bequeathed a large chunk of her fortune to her favorite teacup poodle (she had no children), with instructions for that money to be donated to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital after the pooch’s passing."
It could just be an urban legend. But considering the eclectic Schafer once ate a diet of nothing but ice cream ("I think I've tried every diet there is, but my favorite I invented myself — the ice cream diet," she once said. "I eat a quart of ice cream a day.") we wouldn't doubt it.