Dwayne Hickman nearly starred in the first true sitcom spin-off
Dwayne Hickman will be forever associated with the role of Dobie Gillis. It's a character he played across four decades, in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and its later nostalgic reunion flicks. But before he was Dobie, the teen idol was known as Chuck.
A syndicated newspaper article in 1956 compared Hickman to Elvis Presley, dubbing him the teen sensation of television. He had recently become a household name thanks to playing Chuck on The Bob Cummings Show. The entire cast of The Bob Cummings Show was visiting Joplin, Missouri, Cummings' hometown. The audience broke out into starstruck screams. "We want Chuck! We want Chuck! We want Chuck!" they cried. Nobody had seen this coming. It was a precursor to Beatlemania and Biebermania.
Naturally, they wanted to cash in. With the first spin-off from a hit sitcom.
Before we go further, we should define "spin-off."
The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows defines one as "when one or more characters from a series, usually supporting characters, subsequently appeared on another series." You know, like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. from The Andy Griffith Show.
In the late 1950s, this concept was new.
To that point, most spin-offs had been in the Western genre. And most of those had been seeded in anthology series. The 20th Century Fox Hour birthed Broken Arrow in 1956. Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre spawned Trackdown in 1957… and The Rifleman a year later.
Some cite The Honeymooners as the first spin-off, as those characters originally appeared in sketches on Jackie Gleason's Cavalcade of Stars. But that was more of taking a hit segment and giving it its own airtime. And besides, that was a variety show spinning off a sitcom.
Networks had yet to really dive into taking side characters from a sitcom and giving them their own vehicle. Like Frasier from Cheers. The first sitcom-to-sitcom spin-off to do it was Pete and Gladys, born from December Bride in 1960.
But The Bob Cummings Show tried. In a bold way.
"Cummings and CBS are looking into the possibilities of TV series for each of the main supporting performers on the show," a profile of Bob Cummings revealed in February 1957. It was a novel idea, and Cummings ambitiously planned to go BIG with several at once.
"There's Ann B. Davis, who plays Schultzy, his secretary; Rosemary DeCamp, his TV sister; young Dwayne Hickman who is seen as his nephew; and last but far from it, Grandpa Collins, the dual role that features Cummings as his own grandpa," the article explained. This would be akin to The Mary Tyler Moore Show planning to launch Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant simultaneously — before anybody had ever considered the idea! Pretty forward-thinking, no?
"Really, the best possibility and the one we are working on first," Cummings said, "is a series for Dwayne Hickman, who plays the part of my nephew. It would be a program titled Chuck Goes to College, aimed at the teen-age market. There isn't anything like it on the air and a survey we have already taken indicated there is a tremendous demand for a 'school' show."
Yes, at the time, even the very notion of a sitcom centered around teens in school was novel.
The Encyclopedia of Unaired Television Pilots, 1945–2018 lists this proposed series simply as Chuck. The entry further explained, "The pilot was to place Chuck in college (Gridling University) and relate his mishaps as a pre-med student and in a relationship with a steady girlfriend (Olive Sturgess)."
So what happened? Pretty simple — the network declined to pick up the series in 1958. Hickman returned to The Bob Cummings Show (a.k.a. Love That Bob) for a final season.
A year later, in 1959, Hickman was cast to play Dobie Gillis and finally got the chance to star in the "school" show that audiences were hankering.
Watch The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis on Decades
Weeknights at 3a ET | 12a PT