The many rebellions of 'Dobie Gillis'

  • Updated: July 1, 2013 - 6:59 PM

Yesteryear’s teen TV offerings are tame compared with today’s, but were radical in their own ways.

Dwayne Hickman, left, Bob Denver and Sheila Kuehl in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” A boxed set of the 1959-63 series is being released this week.

Photo: Gabi Rona via New York Times,

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By NEIL GENZLINGER New York Times

If you enjoy a study in contrasts, first spend an evening watching any of today’s teenager-centered television offerings — on CW, ABC Family, even TeenNick or the Disney Channel. Then sample a few episodes of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which ran from 1959 to 1963 and was one of the first shows to depict life from the teenage perspective.

The differences are astonishing. Sure, teenager-hood today isn’t what it used to be. But still, the innocence of “Dobie Gillis” — Shout Factory released a boxed set of the series on Tuesday — is downright jarring when juxtaposed with modern fare.

It is possible, though, to view this inoffensive show not as an artifact of an impossibly quaint age, but as quietly radical, a herald of things to come. You just have to change the filter through which you watch it. These days we equate trailblazing in television with shock value: the guy-on-guy kiss, the graphic rape scene, the flash of prime-time nudity. We forget that change can also come through subversion.

And there was a bit of subversiveness to “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” The show starred Dwayne Hickman as Dobie, who when the series began was a 17-year-old high school student with nothing on his mind but girls. Just what Dobie hoped to do with the scores of young women who drew his attention over the show’s 147 episodes was always left pristinely vague. The implied progression seemed to go from light necking directly to marriage, with nothing in between.

The show was based on a series of stories by Max Shulman, a St. Paul native and University of Minnesota graduate who also created the TV series. Through four seasons, Hickman (who was in his mid-20s when the show began) went from high school student to Army grunt to collegiate Romeo, with he and his friends rarely having a care more traumatic than where to hide a rival football team’s lucky pet goat after making off with it.

But hold on.

“In its own way, although it was simplistic and seems perhaps naive because it doesn’t show anything negative about society, it was revolutionary,” said Sheila Kuehl, who played Zelda Gilroy, a recurring character with a single-minded determination to marry Dobie. And Kuehl knows something about revolution. In 1994 she became the first openly gay candidate to be elected to the California Legislature.

From her first appearance in Episode 3, Zelda wanted nothing but to lasso Dobie, who was interested in every young woman on the planet except her. She taunted him with a signature gesture that anyone who watched the series recalls: She would wrinkle her nose at him, causing Dobie to reflexively wrinkle back.

The bit originated, Kuehl said, when Rod Amateau, who directed scores of episodes, wasn’t satisfied with a particular take.

“Rod said, ‘This scene doesn’t feel done to me; think hard about what we can do,’” Kuehl said. “Well, when I think hard, I wrinkle up my nose.”

The original concept for the series, Kuehl said, was for Dobie to be paired with a different woman in each episode. “Zelda was a one-shot on paper, just like all the other girls,” she said, adding, “They apparently really liked what I had done.”

That early in the television era, it was still possible to make quick adjustments as a show went along, without cutting through a lot of network red tape. So Zelda became a regular, as did others, like Tuesday Weld’s money-hungry Thalia Menninger.

Kuehl’s character seems on the surface like one that today might leave an accomplished professional such as Kuehl a tad embarrassed. But Kuehl, who served for six years in the California Assembly and eight in the state Senate and is now running for Los Angeles County supervisor, said Zelda turned out to be a little ahead of her time in some respects.

“I started getting letters from women who were waking up to the women’s movement, saying Zelda was a role model for them,” she recalled.

Why? Because Zelda was the smartest character on the show and also the most assertive. She knew what she wanted — even if what she wanted was simply one particular guy — and she wasn’t afraid to be vocal about it.

If Zelda nudged the feminist needle ahead, another character, the show’s most enduring one, did the same for the anti-Establishment ethos. He was Maynard G. Krebs, Dobie’s best friend and in many ways his polar opposite. Where Dobie was neat and well groomed, Maynard had a scraggly goatee and an even scraggier sweatshirt. Where Dobie talked nonstop about girls, Maynard was interested in them only rarely.

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