Actress, singer, and author Tina Louise (b. New York City, 11 February 1934) is immediately recognizable as Ginger Grant, the movie star stranded with six other characters on Gilligan’s Island on the CBS sit-com that ran originally from 1964 to 1967, but was syndicated for decades of popular television reruns. Yet Louise was a ubiquitous screen presence for forty years, making appearances on 43 other television series and eleven movies made for TV, as well as 28 more films for the big screen. In addition, earlier in her career she was in five Broadway musicals, notably as Appassionata von Climax in Li’l Abner (1956).
Tina Blacker’s parents’ marriage lasted only until she was four years old, and when she was five, her mother, a fashion model, sent her to a private girls’ boarding school in Ardsley-on-Hudson. It was three years – “not a particularly happy time” – before her mother married again. Her new stepfather was a wealthy Westchester doctor, John Myers, and from this point on, Tina Myers was at the social level of a debutante. In high school she began to feel acutely the lack of a middle name – all the other girls in her class had them – and chose Louise, gradually dropping the last name altogether.
She went off to college at Miami University in Ohio, but had already developed a serious interest in acting, dancing, and singing in high school, and soon dropped out to begin her career. She had inherited her mother’s good looks and was offered modeling jobs as well as a part in the Singing Ensemble of Two’s Company, the 1952 Bette Davis vehicle, on Broadway. (Tina was eighteen.) Some months later she had four small roles in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac with Harry Belafonte and Polly Bergen; this show had a healthy six-month run.
In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955) Tina Louise played A Swimmer for all its 444 performances, and from that show went directly into the cast of Li’l Abner as Appassionata von Climax, sharing the bill with Peter Palmer, Edith Adams, and Julie Newmar.
In truth, although Louise considered herself a serious actress, these roles were almost entirely dependent upon her pulchritudinous physique, an attribute she took no pains to conceal. She was already appearing on covers of pinup magazines, and was persuaded that this was an effective way to get a start in show business. Indeed she had encouraging success for a beginner, appearing in live television dramas like Studio One, Producers’ Showcase, and Appointment with Adventure (all 1956).
In 1957 she was on The Phil Silvers Show and Climax!, and took the opportunity offered by her rising fortunes to release an album of sexy standards (like “Tonight Is the Night,” “Embraceable You,” and “I’m in the Mood for Love”) called It’s Time for Tina. She recorded three more albums before 1960, but later devoted all her energies to acting.
After Li’l Abner closed in 1958, Columbia Pictures took her to Hollywood to make God’s Little Acre. In quick succession she made The Trap with Richard Widmark, The Hangman with Robert Taylor, and Day of the Outlaw with Robert Ryan (all 1959). Her handlers also arranged for her to pose for Playboy (May 1958, April 1959, Playboy Playmate Calendar November 1963). She turned down the opportunity to join the Broadway cast in making the film of Li’l Abner in favor of going to Italy to make three movies in Italian (Saffo, venere di Lesbo or The Warrior Empress, The Siege of Syracuse with Rossano Brazzi, and Garibaldi, directed by Roberto Rossellini). When Louise returned to the United States, she studied acting with Lee Strasberg, eventually joining the Actors Studio.
In 1964 she shared the stage with Carol Burnett on Broadway in Fade Out – Fade In, but was lured away within a month with a promise from the producers of Gilligan’s Island that the new sitcom was to be centered upon her character, Ginger Grant the movie star. (Even The New York Times announced a “TV Show for Tina Louise” in a headline.) Though this soon proved not to be the case, and the show’s silliness tended to rub her the wrong way, Louise stuck with her contract for the full three years (98 episodes), becoming a pop icon against her will. She was ranked in 2005 in second place of the TV Land Top Ten all-time sex symbols.
Tina Louise declined to appear, after the series ended in 1967, in any of the three television movie sequels of Gilligan’s Island, convinced that the role of Ginger had ruined her career as a serious actress. She continued, however, to work steadily in television and film, appearing on Bonanza, It Takes a Thief, and Ironside, and with Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew, with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in How to Commit Marriage, and with Robert Mitchum in The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (all 1969). Highlights of her work in the 70s were fifteen episodes of Love, American Style, five episodes as J.R.’s secretary on Dallas, a performance on Kojak as a heroin addict, and a series of made-for-TV movies (Death Scream 1975, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby 1976, Nightmare in Badham County 1976, SST: Death Flight 1977, Friendships, Secrets and Lies 1979) in which she explored gritty roles that hitherto had been quite atypical. She was also outstanding as one of The Stepford Wives in 1975.
Louise’s many later films included Robert Altman’s comedy O.C. and Stiggs (1985), Johnny Suede (1992) starring Brad Pitt, Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), Little Pieces (2000), Growing Down in Brooklyn (2000), and West from North Goes South (2004).
From 1966 to 1974, Tina Louise was married to radio and TV announcer Les Crane, with whom she has one daughter, Caprice Crane (b. 1970), now a novelist, writer, and television producer.
Besides being an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, Tina Louise is a passionate advocate for literacy and education. She has volunteered as a teacher at the non-profit Learning Leaders, providing tutoring to New York City school children, and written three books: her first was Sunday: A Memoir (1997), about her own experience being sent away to boarding school at the age of five; the second, When I Grow Up (2007), encourages children, through humorous comparisons with animals, to believe they can become whatever they choose; another children’s book, What Does a Bee Do? (2009) is a response to the Colony Collapse Disorder (or, “Honey Bee Depopulation Syndrome”) that has recently seriously threatened honey production nationwide. An animated video version of this last book is being developed.
Still a Big Apple dweller, Tina Louise is also a visual artist and has exhibited paintings publicly at the Ambassador Galleries, the Gallery Stendhal in Soho, and at the Patterson Museum of Art.
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection