Hollywood Icon Tina Louise, ‘Ginger’ from Gilligan’s Island, on why it’s so important to involve yourself with volunteer work, to keep peace of mind and your head on straight

I have a poster that I was given from a health store that I helped when they were first starting. It says, “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment […]

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I have a poster that I was given from a health store that I helped when they were first starting. It says, “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely, earnestly”. That was said by Buddha, 560–480 BC. That was good advice. So you just have to deal with the day and you just have to pick yourself up and not stay down. Each person has to make their own effort to not dwell on the negative and find ways to deal and make the day positive. Forgiveness in certain situations is very important. It’s not easy, but we have to work at it because everybody’s very complicated.

I had the distinct pleasure to interview iconic actress Tina Louise. Tina is an American actress best known for playing movie star Ginger Grant in the CBS comedy Gilligan’s Island. She began her career on stage during the mid-1950s, before landing her breakthrough role in 1958 drama film God’s Little Acre for which she received Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. Louise had starring roles in a number of Hollywood movies, including The Trap, The Hangman, Day of the Outlaw, and For Those Who Think Young. Tina now resides in New York City. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a lifetime member of the Actors Studio. Louise has been a vocal advocate for improving child literacy. She donated a portion of the proceeds of her 2007 book, When I Grow Up, to literacy programs and has been volunteering at local public schools since 1996. Tian has written three books including Sunday: A Memoir (1997) and When I Grow Up (2007). The latter is a children’s book that inspires children to believe they can become whatever they choose through creative and humorous comparisons of animal kingdom achievements. She also published a second children’s book titled What Does a Bee Do? in 2009.

Thank you so much for joining us Tina! Can you tell us a bit about your latest film, Tapestry?

Tina Louise: I really enjoyed that particular shoot. We got an opportunity to improvise. In fact, one of the scenes was completely my idea and it seems to have been appreciated by the public. It was a scene on the park bench with my son — played by Stephen Baldwin. I just felt that the relationship between us had to be a little bit visually stronger than it was as written at that moment. The director, Ken Kushner, gave us a lot of freedom and I’m sort of trained in that sense. I’m used to improvisational work and I think today there’s a lot of that, that goes on with my fellow actors. I enjoyed working with Burt Young and I enjoyed everybody that I worked with. It was a lovely cast.

We worked really hard but it took a while for them to get the financing to finish it. But out of the blue I was told that it was a done deal and next thing I know it’s on Amazon Prime. It was kind of surprising because I thought it would never happen. You know, you put your energy into something, you certainly don’t do it for the money, and you have to want to do it. I’m very grateful that it’s come out and that a lot of people seem to like it.

Yitzi: What would you say is the main takeaway or the main inspiration to be taken out of the film?

Tina: Well, here’s a guy who was my son who was down on his luck because someone has betrayed him in the office. And he becomes very, very depressed. And it’s about how we’re all trying to pull him out of it and I have a very strong relationship with him and, it takes a bit of doing.

I think whenever something brings us down, — it could be something from the past that just pops into your mind, or you have a nightmare, — what are you going to do? Are going to spend the whole day thinking about that or are you going to change it? Each person has the power to change their day. That’s what you have, you have this day, this special day. So we should live it like it’s our last.

I have a poster that I was given from a health store that I helped when they were first starting. It says, “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely, earnestly”. That was said by Buddha, 560–480 BC. That was good advice.

So you just have to deal with the day and you just have to pick yourself up and not stay down. Each person has to make their own effort to not dwell on the negative and find ways to deal and make the day positive.

Forgiveness in certain situations is very important. It’s not easy, but we have to work at it because everybody’s very complicated.

So I think that the main lesson is you just can’t let yourself stay down. You just have to come out of it.

In this movie there are a lot of people that come around him and he ends up being fortified, starting over in a sense. That was the story of the writer Rob DePalo, you know. He really lived it and he wrote the story of what happened to him.

Yitzi: Wow. So Tina, you’ve had a really illustrious career. Are you able to tell us a bit of the story that brought you to this point in your career? How you got started in show business?

Tina: Well, you know I had a very unusual childhood. I wrote a book about my first eight years called Sunday. I also have the beginnings of a script. I’ve always wanted to make a movie of it.

My path was very unusual, I lived with a lot of different cousins and aunts and strangers and so forth and so on, sort of a gypsy kind of a childhood.

We had a wonderful drama teacher in school and everybody just loved him. It wasn’t that we were thinking about being actors, you know, we just liked him. We wanted to be around him. We wanted to be in the plays. So I participated in the plays there.

Then the summer before I went away to Miami U for six months I saw a friend of mine who had gotten a part in a play on Broadway and he was the same age as me and I was very impressed.

My mother took me backstage and I just really enjoyed it. And the very fact that my friend was in it gave me a little push to just proceed. I told my mother that I wanted to leave the University because the drama department wasn’t sufficient for me.

So my mother put me in Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan, which was. and still is a wonderful school.

When I was there, we had Martha Graham, who was teaching dance and many wonderful teachers that taught us. I liked that a lot.

Then, I did some apprentice work with Lucille Lortel who had the White Barn Theater in Connecticut. We put on two shows that summer and they had professional people there interested in producing new plays.

That was the beginning, that’s how it all began. I never thought I would be in a movie or anything like that. I was just so happy to be doing what I liked to do and I took it one step at a time, which we have to do.

Yitzi: Can you share with us what you think is the most interesting story that happened to you during your career?

Tina: Well, maybe meeting Carry Grant. That was pretty interesting.

And Blake Edwards wanted me for a movie and after I did my first film, which was in the Venice film festival called God’s Little Acre. Are you familiar with that?

It was a book, Erskine Caldwell wrote and all the characters were very, very clear. It was wonderful. It’s a classic, played on Turner Classic. God’s Little Acre was my favorite film I’ve worked on.

So Blake Edwards wanted me to do this project. I had a three picture contract with the producers of God’s Little Acre and they did not like this new story for me. They thought it was not up to par for me. I was offered much more money than they were paying me at the time, or anybody had ever paid me. But he said only if they would pay me $25,000 more, would he allow me to do it, or encourage me to do it. But they did not agree to it and so I didn’t do it.

But, before that I did have a meeting with Blake about it. It’s quite interesting. It was an exciting moment to see him walk up the path to pick me up, to take me out for dinner. I certainly won’t forget that, I’m not going to give you all the details because who knows? One day I might write a book…

I just like to live one day at a time the way I want to. I don’t know if that presses your button or not, or if that’s what you want.

Yitzi: Can you tell us a story about your transition from an unknown actress to a world famous actress?

Tina: It just was one thing after another. I was in a Lil Abner at the time that I was found. The producer and the director were in the audience and they wanted a very earthy person, an earthy girl. The play was a wonderful, huge success on Broadway at the time. As I recall, after seeing me, the director said, “well, we should bring her in, we’re seeing so many people”. Then I went for that audition, which was just the beginning of a whole trail of interactions with them before I really got that part.

At first I met with them and I was wearing the stage make-up that I wore in the show, because people were taking a lot of pictures of me at that time. So I showed up with a full makeup. Then he told me to come back and please wash my face. So I did but my partner didn’t show up. So the producer who was an older man read the first scene with me and it just made it really real for me. It was just quite incredible because he was reading the Ty Ty part, the father of the whole family. I’ve always been a very instinctive actor and it just really worked for me. He was so much older than me and, and he got very, very excited. Then the actor finally showed up and I did the other scene. There was a lot of publicity about this because a lot of people were up for this part, because they wanted somebody new. But they also were seeing people that were already working.

Then there came a day where the casting agents wanted “freckle face pictures of Tina Louise”. I had been supporting my baseball team. We were playing baseball in the park — the different shows played each other. There was a photographer there and I had no makeup on and a baseball hat. He started to take my picture and I told him to not to waste his time because nobody would print it, you know. “I had to have my makeup on and the low cut dress, etcetera, etcetera”, I said. And he said, well, just let me take them. I said, “okay, okay”.

Then came this note to the agent that “we want the freckle face pictures of Tina Louise”. I went racing up to the photographer because he had given me his card. I said, “Do you have any of those pictures that you took that day?”. He came out with these three big headshots, which was so incredible that he had done that. It was just from the neck up and there was this face full of freckles and the baseball hat.

I brought it to my agent. He sent them to the West Coast. I was so excited and grateful. But then my director, Anthony Man had a heart attack. We had to wait three months longer. Eventually I got to screen test and then I got the part in God’s Little Acre.

That was an amazing, amazing, amazing opportunity working with so many great actors and in a book that became a screenplay with such a fine writer. That was my beginning and one picture led to another and another.

When I came back from Europe, I wanted to study more so a close friend of mine spoke to me about Lee Strasberg and I started to work with him. But I decided that I didn’t want to do anything else, I’m just going to study now.

Finally after about a year, I went into a show with Carol Burnett . At that point and I got a call from CBS. Ethel Weiner was the casting director there and she told me about this show. They were not satisfied with the person who was in the pilot and “would I like to play a part that is a mix of Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball — it’s one of seven people. (Gilligan’s Island). And you know what happened there… I mean it became an instant success. People just really loved it and liked it.

People that were sick got relief from it, So many things had happened in our civilization at the time. Martin Luther King was killed. And then, JFK and then his brother, Bobby Kennedy. People needed that relief and this show just seemed to take people away from everything. There was one shock after another in our civilization and so that show was a big deal. It kept growing and one day someone said to me, “Tina you are an icon”. I said, “Really? What do you mean?” It’s kind of surprising to me. But I do have a lot of friends out there and they do write to me. Today, it’s more fun receiving mail from them than it ever was.

I had already become a member of the actor’s studio and I really wanted to get back to doing more serious things or just other things. But a very close friend of mine said, “Oh, this show is only going to last six months, you know what? You haven’t been working, you should do it because you’ve been studying”.

But it just took off, and it never would have gone off the air. But the head of CBS at that time, I Bill Paley, had a very strong interest in a western show, Gunsmoke. He ordered CBS to take something off the air to run Gunsmoke, even though Gilligan’s Island was in the top 20. They took the show off and then they syndicated it and then it never went off.

After that, I’ve gone back and forth from to TV to film to television to film and a little bit of everything. You enjoy some things or some things work out more successfully than others, because then there are strikes and you do things that you might not love, but it’s just part of it, you know? You learn as you go along. A lot of things, have to do with your personal life.

Yitzi: As you know, many people are trying to make it in show business and some get frustrated and burnout. You have a lot of experience. What do recommend to your colleagues to thrive in show business and not burn out?

Tina: First of all, I think it’s important to come to New York and to try to work in theater. Just start working the best you can in theatre, whether you get paid or not.

Number two. It’s really important to get involved in something other than yourself or other than the craft because there’s going to be so many ups and downs in this business. It’s important to involve yourself in some kind of charity work, civil work, just to help somebody else.

This is one of the things that has given me a lot of pleasure and joy. When I moved back to New York from L.A. around 1990, I discovered that the reading level in the public schools was really bad and I just really wanted to help.

I called a teacher whose name was in the newspaper. It was really front page news, how low the reading levels were when Giuliani was mayor. I found out about a group called Learning Leaders, in New York City where people went into the public schools and they would assign you a school that was 20 blocks uptown or downtown from where you lived.

So I got involved, very, very involved in that. I would go probably twice a week. I just really fell in love with that because you’re making a difference. It’s important to make a difference with other people. That was the perfect thing for me because nobody ever read to me as a child. It was really a two way street. I just really loved helping them and empowering them, and the kids enjoyed it as well.

But then, unfortunately, one summer, I was on the South Hampton Jitney and the driver stopped short when I was going to the loo. There was no sign saying that you shouldn’t go to the loo unless it comes to a full stop, and they generally made very few stops. The driver stopped short and he was on his cell phone. I was thrown, slammed, and I fractured my coccyx bone. The only way that you can heal from that is you have to lie still for two, two and a half months. They don’t operate on that, you just have to lie still.

So basically I was out of commission for that whole year. By the time I came back, the Learning Leaders had shut down they couldn’t find a corporation to sponsor it. It just disbanded. There were over a thousand people that went into the public school to do this and I’m sure it was as important to everybody else as it was to me. I was very sad about that. I think it’s pretty shameful that not one corporation was interested in funding that. I really liked doing that and certainly would have wanted to continue when I was able to.

So, it’s really important to find something that you can do to help. That’s really, really important to keep peace of mind, keep your head up and your head on straight.

Yitzi: You’re a person of great influence. If you could start a movement, that’ll bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people what would that idea be?

Tina: That’s a hard one, but as I said, each person has to find their own group. Something that they’re really interested in. If I was going to start my own… it’s such a large subject. But obviously I like to work with children. I used to work mainly with first and second graders, where they really have a comprehension. But I can’t name my own cause. I just like helping children. That’s what I like. It would be about children.

I love St. Jude. I support St. Jude right now because, they don’t charge the parents anything and they take care of the children. I think that’s such a key charity in society and I think Marlo Thomas does a great job with that and I support it.

Yitzi: Is there a person that you’d like to meet, to have breakfast or lunch with? He or she might see this article.

Tina: I would say Steven Spielberg. I would like to meet him. I would like him to see my writing, the beginning of my script and read my book Sunday. I would say that he would be my favorite producer that I would want to work with to produce this movie.

I’m actually negotiating now too, with a publisher who brought to my attention that my publishing rights have reverted back to myself. So I had to claim my publishing rights. We’re talking now about doing an audio recording of the book, which I had never done and I would like to do. So many people are listening to audiobooks instead of reading. However I’m a reader myself. I’m always reading a book of some interest.

Yitzi: Do you have a favorite life lesson quote that often, share? Can you share how that quote was relevant in your life?

Tina: I don’t have that, but I do think that each person has to find something with which to start their day. Whether it’s a prayer, or it’s a book that’s inspiring that you read every day, because we have to start our day nourishing our emotional wellbeing.

I would say you have to take time to feed your spirit at the beginning of the day and sometimes in the middle. I mean, I have prayers that I say walking down the street, even if I can’t read something. Saint Francis is a great inspiration to me.

Yitzi: I’d love to hear more about the two children’s books that you wrote.

Tina: Yes my first children’s book was called “When I Grow Up”. I got these ideas from working with children. I saw that a lot of the children really loved animals. What I did was I took animals and insects and showed what they could do and what the child could become. Like if a spider can build a beautiful web, then when I grow up I could be an architect. You see? If an elephant can shake hands with his trunk, then when I grow up I could be president of the United States, because they’re always shaking hands.

I also wrote a book called “What Does a Bee Do. I wrote that because so many children I met think that a honey bee just stings. But honey bees are the source of all of our food. I thought it was important for children to understand that. Especially because so many bees are now dying.

And of course Sunday is an unusual story of my beginnings. As I said, I’ve always wanted to make a movie of that. It was the thing that I felt I just had to write down.

We have two new babies in our family, Clementine and Kingston. They’re one and a half. Maybe I will write another children’s book for them. I haven’t figured out yet what it’s going to be.

Yitzi: That’s beautiful. Do you have a story of a mistake that you made that turned out to be pretty funny?

Tina: No, I don’t. I mean, I’ve worked with some funny guys, you know, but, I can’t think of anything like that. Working with Dean Martin was a lot of fun. I was in a movie with him and Sharon Tate called The Wrecking Crew . It was her last movie. Dean Martin and I did a special. I was the only girl on a special that he did and then I was in that film with him. He’s a really sweet guy. I also worked with Bob Hope, and with Jackie Gleason . Aldo Ray in my first movie was a wonderful person to work. I’d never made a movie and he was really very sweet and so easy to work with and so real that he just made everything easier.

I have no answer to that last question about the funniest mistake. I just can’t think of anything like that.

I love film and I’m so happy that I’m a member of the Film Academy. It is so great to be looking at the wonderful films that come out each year. It’s really grown in New York. Now we have all the actors that are in the films coming to New York, starting at the end of September and talking about their work and how they worked on that particular film. It’s just great to be here in the city that I love, the city where I was born. The Academy is just as important here in NYC as it is out in Los Angeles.

Yitzi: I’m curious about what it’s like to be in the Film Academy. When you vote for the best picture or best actor, what do you look for when you vote?

Tina: Well, I vote for the pictures that move me the most. It becomes clear along the way when you see them. I feel that this movie should really play again, tt’s such an extraordinary movie. You know it when you see it.

I mean, I knew when I saw Still Alice, with Julianne Moore, I knew it would win the minute I saw it. I knew it when I saw Room. You just know it, you know it when you see it. And then you carry it, it doesn’t go away. It just stays, in your heart and your spirit and then you know.

As actors we vote in the first ballot for Best Actor and Best Picture. We’re not involved in the five awards from the writing union. That’s them. They pick their five and we have another ballot. Once they’ve picked their five, then we all vote again. That’s how it works. Did you know that?

Yitzi: I’m going to try my best to get this interview in front of Steven Spielberg. I will try my best and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if he picks you up on the offer.

I guess this will be the last question. You seem so youthful and vibrant. Do you have any secrets to being so healthy?

Tina: Well I certainly work at it, you know what I mean? I go to the gym, and I watch what I consume, and that’s very, very important. As time goes on you see a lot of people that are not taking good enough care of themselves. You realize that it’s really, really important to eat the right foods and to exercise.

Well. thank you so much for your time Tina. It was so fascinating learning about all these stories!

I’ve enjoyed speaking with you and sharing my thoughts.

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