Dwayne Hickman, TV’s Lovelorn Dobie Gillis, dead at 87


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

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

Aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963, “The many loves of Dobie Gillis” was an essential ingredient of adolescence for the post-war generation and remained popular in syndication for years. Mr. Hickman went on to become one of television’s first teenage idols for his portrayal of his lover hero, and he remained indelibly identified with the character forever, a fate he endured with genial resignation.

“Dobie Gillis” followed the fortunes of her hero, friends and family to Central City, a community whose precise location has never been clarified but which in all its healthiness seemed eminently Midwestern.

Dobie, 17 at the start of the series, is Everyteen. (At the start of the series, Mr. Hickman’s brown hair was bleached to blonde to make him look as corn-fed as possible, until the peroxide treatments started to make his hair fall out.) He longs, in the words of the show’s jazzy theme song, for “a girl to call his own,” and just as ardently for the financial means to squire that girl.

Despite all of its well-cleaned chastity, the series marked a quietly subversive departure from the standard television fare of the day. He was among the first to bring the hot topic of adolescence to the fore by telling the story from a teenager’s perspective. It smashed through the Weekly Fourth Wall, opening with a monologue in which Mr. Hickman, seated in front of a line of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” gave viewers a tour of his gently anxious soul.

Many well-known actors were exposed early on in the series, including Bob Denver as Dobie’s best friend, Maynard G. Krebs, a scruffy junior beatnik who yelped “Work!” At the mere suggestion of seeking gainful employment. Mr. Denver would continue to star on “Gilligan’s Island”.

Tuesday Weld was regularly seen as the beautiful and stingy Thalia Menninger, the financially inaccessible object of Dobie’s affections; Warren Beatty had a recurring role early in the race as a Blue Blood classmate.

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

Mr. Hickman had started his screen career – reluctantly – some two decades earlier, following in his brother’s footsteps, Darryl, three years his senior and much better known at the start. Darryl Hickman, whose fame was ultimately eclipsed by that of Dwayne, would play Dobie’s big brother Davey in a few episodes of the show’s first season.

By the time “Dobie Gillis” took its course, Dwayne Hickman had become so closely identified with the main character that he was struggling to land other roles. He was too old then to play a teenager anyway: he was 25 when “Dobie” started and 29 when it ended.

As a result, his career over the following decades spanned in and out of Hollywood, embracing stints as entertainment director for the Landmark Hotel for Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, a publicity man, a publicity manager, network programming and, later, a successful painter of realistic landscapes.

But for decades after his series ended, Mr. Hickman could barely walk an American street without a stranger stopping, watching and shouting happily, “Hi, Dobie!” as if to greet a long lost friend.

Dwayne Bernard Hickman was born in Los Angeles on May 18, 1934. His father, Milton, was an insurer; her mother, the former Louise Ostertag, had had plans on celebrity herself, but, as Louise Lang, only did extra work in a few Hollywood images.

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

Dwayne’s other screen appearances as a child included roles in the television 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, the creator of “Dobie Gillis”.

He received his greatest exposure to date when he was cast on “The Bob Cummings Show” (also called “Love That Bob”) as Chuck, the nephew of Mr. Cummings’ character; the series aired variously on NBC and CBS from 1955 to 1959.

While working on this show, he was also a full-time student at present-day Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Although the demands of his on-screen career prompted him to leave before he graduated, he later returned and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Once Mr. Hickman became a nationwide idol as the Dobie – other actors considered for the role had included Tab Hunter and Michael Landon – his managers tried to make money by turning him into a song star. By his own admission, Mr. Hickman could not sing. The resulting two albums, “School Dance” and “Dobie,” he later wrote, “didn’t exactly top the Billboard charts.

His post-“Dobie” credits include the movie “Cat Ballou”, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, but mostly consist of trifles like “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965); two televised meetings, “What happened to Dobie Gillis?” (1977) and “Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis” (1988); and, in the 1990s, a recurring role in the “Clueless” series.

Beginning in 1977, Mr. Hickman spent a decade as a program director at CBS, where he oversaw the content and development of series such as “Maude”, “Good Times”, “M * A * S * H “and” Alice “. He has directed episodes for several television shows, including “Charles in Charge” and “Designing Women”.

Mr. 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 Mrs. Roberts Hickman, Mr. Hickman recounts what happened when he took her to the hospital to await the birth of their son.

“When I entered the labor room, a nurse was asking her questions while she was filling out her file,” he wrote. “When she was done she looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Gillis, I’ll be back in a few minutes. “

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

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