(This story was published in 2004).
"Everybody knows the real professor was gay."
At least, that’s what Professor Eric Anderson, aka "Coach Gumby," told producers of TBS’ reality series "The Real Gilligan’s Island" when he responded to a casting call he had received through e-mail last May.
The producers were looking for a real-life professor to play "the professor" in their upcoming reality series, based on the ‘60s sitcom. They originally found Anderson through Ratemyprofessors.com, where former students rate professors in various categories, including how "hot" (i.e., attractive) they are. Professors who are considered "hot" are noted with a chili pepper next to their name. Anderson, it seems, got more than his fair share of chili peppers – and got the attention of producers.
The producers, including Sherwood Schwartz, who produced the original series in addition to "The Brady Bunch," "Harper Valley P.T.A." and others, hadn’t considered casting an openly gay person in any of the roles on the show – until Anderson’s phone call.
"Come on," he urged them. "The professor dressed well, he was logical, and he never made advances toward Mary Ann or Ginger. Everybody knows it."
Two days later he got a returned call: the network execs loved the idea.
As a kid, Anderson had been one of the millions who watched the antics of the original series. In his book Trailblazing: The True Story of America's First Openly Gay Track Coach, he had even referenced the show, saying that a gay guy having sex with a woman before he’s out is like watching "Gilligan’s Island" – you don’t know why you’re doing it, but you do it anyway.
"I always identified with the professor," he says. "If you had to pick the character whom I related to, it was totally the professor."
Once chosen as one of the castaways, Anderson spent much of the rest of the summer before production studying how to be the best "professor" he could be, with much help from his husband, Grant Peterson. Luckily, he had already finished writing his next book, In The Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity, due out in January, and had already settled his teaching plans for the autumn – a new job at State University of New York at Stony Brook.
A former runner – Dan Gaston, who plays a big role in Trailblazing – taught him how to do just about everything with bamboo: build a boat, start a fire, develop a water delivery system. He re-watched over 60 episodes of the original series. He read books chronicling every one of the series’ episodes and reviewed academic critiques of the series. He slowly cut his calorie intake to 900 per day and increased his exposure to the sun.
When he finally got to the island, he met the six other castaway stand-ins. But these weren’t any stand-ins: the skipper was a real skipper; the millionaire was a real millionaire; Nicole Eggert from "Baywatch" was the resident movie star. In the coming weeks he would be competing against these castaways to survive elimination. Or so he thought.
When the game started, his group of seven castaways met another group of seven castaways and the nature of the game suddenly changed. Anderson would first be competing directly with a second professor, Pat Abbott, a 64-year-old geology professor at San Diego State University, to stay on the island and be one of the final seven castaways.
Much of the scuffling that Anderson does on the show, however, is with a certain millionaire’s wife. One of the "Mrs. Howells" on the show did not take kindly to Anderson’s homosexuality – and his "flaunting" of it.
Since coming out as an openly gay high school track coach in Orange County, Anderson has not only refused to hide his sexuality, but he has been forthcoming with it. His house behind the "Orange Curtain" had a giant rainbow flag outside. His car sports a rainbow sticker. He wears rainbow-colored necklaces. Anderson makes no bones about his sexuality. And that didn’t go over well with Mrs. Howell.
But Anderson saw the outward expressions of sexuality from different-colored glasses.
"She was flaunting her heterosexuality big time," he says. "And she was flaunting her wealth. She is this impossible woman to deal with."
Still, he said, if she could ditch the homophobia, "she would be a fantastic fag hag. She’s incredibly high-energy, loves to shop and loves gossip."
Whether the high-energy pair reconcile before being rescued, you’ll have to tune in to see.
While he’s not quite sure what he wants to get out of it, he was very sure of why he agreed to be in the show.
"I truly believe America needs a gay professor," he says. "Within popular culture, you can name who’s a gay actor or politician or athlete. But, who’s a gay intellect? My objective was to put another face on gay in America."
And the allure of national television certainly wasn’t a detracting factor.
"If I wasn’t a professor and they wanted me to be Gilligan," Anderson says, "I still would have done it."