Dwayne Hickman, TV's lovelorn Dobie Gillis, dies at 87

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Dwayne Hickman, TV's lovelorn Dobie Gillis, dies at 87
He went on to appear in movies and other TV shows and to work as a television executive, but the role of Dobie would dog him for decades.

by Margalit Fox

NEW YORK, NY.- Dwayne Hickman, the affable, apple-cheeked actor whose starring role in the revered sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” would dog him for more than a half-century, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 87.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, a spokesperson for his family said.

Broadcast on CBS from 1959 to 1963, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” was an essential ingredient of adolescence for the postwar generation and remained popular in syndication for years. Hickman became one of TV’s first teenage idols for his portrayal of its lovelorn hero, and he remained indelibly identified with the character ever after, a fate he bore with genial resignation.

“Dobie Gillis” followed the fortunes of its hero, his friends and family in Central City, a community whose precise location was never specified but that in all its wholesomeness seemed eminently Midwestern.

Dobie, 17 when the show begins, is Everyteen. (Early in the series, Hickman’s brown hair was bleached blond to make him look as cornfed as possible, until the peroxide treatments began to make his hair fall out.) He pines ardently, in the words of the show’s jazzy theme song, for “a girl to call his own,” and just as ardently for the financial wherewithal to squire that girl around.

For all its well-scrubbed chastity, the series marked a quietly subversive departure from the standard television fare of the day. It was among the first to place the topical subject of teenagerhood front and center by recounting the story from a teenager’s point of view. It broke the fourth wall weekly, opening with a monologue in which Hickman, seated in front of a replica of Rodin’s “Thinker,” gave viewers a guided tour of his gently angst-ridden soul.

Many well-known actors received early exposure on the series, notably Bob Denver as Dobie’s best friend, Maynard G. Krebs, a scruffy junior beatnik who yelps “Work!” at the merest suggestion that he seek gainful employment. Denver would go on to star in “Gilligan’s Island.”

Tuesday Weld was seen regularly as the beautiful, avaricious Thalia Menninger, the financially unattainable object of Dobie’s affections; Warren Beatty had a recurring role early in the run as a blue-blood classmate.

Dobie’s cantankerous, tightfisted father and sweet, harebrained mother were played by characters actors Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus. His deeply intellectual classmate Zelda, aflame with unrequited love for Dobie, was portrayed by Sheila James. (Under her full name, Sheila James Kuehl, she became, in 1994, the first openly gay person to be elected to the California legislature.)

Hickman had begun his screen career — reluctantly — about two decades earlier, trailing in the footsteps of his brother, Darryl, three years older and initially far better known. Darryl Hickman, whose fame was eventually eclipsed by Dwayne’s, would play Dobie’s big brother, Davey, in a few episodes of the show’s first season.

By the time “Dobie Gillis” ran its course, Dwayne Hickman had become so closely identified with the title character that he had difficulty landing other roles. He was too old by then to play a teenager in any case: He had been 25 when the series began and was 29 when it ended.

As a result, his career over the following decades wove in and out of Hollywood, embracing stints as the entertainment director for Howard Hughes’ Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas, an advertising man, a network programming executive and, in later years, a successful painter of realist landscapes.

But for decades after his series ended, Hickman could scarcely walk down an American street without a stranger stopping, staring and joyfully calling out, “Hi, Dobie!” as if greeting a long-lost friend.

Dwayne Bernard Hickman was born in Los Angeles on May 18, 1934. His father, Milton, was an insurance man; his mother, the former Louise Ostertag, had had designs on stardom herself, but, as Louise Lang, made it only as far as extra work in a few Hollywood pictures.

As an adult, Hickman said he had never planned on an acting career and had never particularly wanted one. He landed his first screen role by accident, when his mother brought him along to Darryl’s audition for “The Grapes of Wrath,” the 1940 Henry Fonda vehicle. Darryl won a part as one of the Joad children; Dwayne was cast as an extra, earning $21.

Dwayne’s other childhood screen appearances included roles on the TV series “Public Defender,” “The Loretta Young Show” and “The Lone Ranger” and in the films “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!” (1958), based on a novel by Max Shulman, creator of “Dobie Gillis.”

He received his broadest exposure yet when he was cast in “The Bob Cummings Show” (also called “Love That Bob”) as Chuck, the nephew of Cummings’ character. The series was broadcast variously on NBC and CBS from 1955-59.

While working on that show, he was also a full-time student at what is now Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Although the demands of his screen career caused him to leave before graduating, he later returned and completed a bachelor’s degree in economics there.

As soon as Hickman became a nationwide heartthrob as Dobie — other actors considered for the role had included Tab Hunter and Michael Landon — his handlers attempted to cash in by turning him into a singing star. By his own ready admission, Hickman could not sing. The two resulting albums, “School Dance” and “Dobie,” he later wrote, “didn’t exactly top the Billboard charts. ”

His post-“Dobie” credits include the film “Cat Ballou,” with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, but consist mostly of trifles such as “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965); two TV reunions, “Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?” (1977) and “Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis” (1988); and, in the 1990s, a recurring role on the series “Clueless.”

Starting in 1977, Hickman spent a decade as a program executive at CBS, where he supervised the content and development of series including “Maude,” “Good Times,” “M*A*S*H” and “Alice.” He directed episodes of several TV shows, including “Charles in Charge” and “Designing Women.”

Hickman’s first marriage, to Carol Christensen, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Joanne Papile. His survivors include his third wife, Joan Roberts Hickman; their son, Albert; and a son, John, from his first marriage.

In his 1994 memoir, “Forever Dobie: The Many Lives of Dwayne Hickman,” written with Roberts Hickman, Hickman recounts what happened when he took her to the hospital to await the birth of their son.

“When I walked into the labor room, a nurse was asking her questions as she filled out her chart,” he wrote. “When she finished, she looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Gillis, I’ll be back in a few minutes.' ’’

Hickman continued: “Joan grabbed my hand and said, ‘Promise that if anything happens to me, you won’t name this boy Dobie!’ ”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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