Dreama Denver grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia before she moved to Florida in the early 1970s and went to work for Disney as one of the first cast members. That’s also where she met her husband, Bob Denver, an actor better known as “Gilligan.” When their son was diagnosed with autism, they eventually moved to West Virginia to provide him with full time care.
Eric Douglas spoke to Dreama Denver about her memoir “Gilligan’s Dreams: The Other Side of the Island.” Denver still lives in Princeton and currently runs The Denver Foundation to support families of children with autism. The foundation also provides “honor flights” for West Virginia veterans to go to Washington, D.C and visit the memorials for free.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Let’s talk about Gilligan. What was your life like with Bob Denver?
Denver: I love talking about Gilligan. You know the reason I wrote the book was because people know him and love him as Gilligan or maybe Maynard, if you’re old enough to remember Dobie Gillis. And Bob was so obviously so much more than that. He was such a wonderful father to our autistic son, he loved me like a woman dreams of being loved. And we had a wonderful marriage of 30 years, and that counts, in spite of the stress that we were under with our son. I wrote the book to let people know, yes about Gilligan and the Hollywood years and all that, but about the man he was when it came to commitment and selflessness.
Douglas: You’re from West Virginia, right. That’s why you ended up back here?
Denver: Yes, I am from Bluefield. I grew up there, graduated high school there. And then my family moved to Florida, where, right after I graduated and we moved to Orlando, I became one of the first 40 cast members at Walt Disney World back before the park opened when they hired college kids. It was great, great, great fun and a real honor in those days. I’m sure it still is, but it was a huge honor to be chosen because there were only 40 of us.
Douglas: Let’s talk about the memoir and your son. When did you first realize your son had developmental issues? And what was that moment like for you?
Denver: We started realizing that something was wrong when he wasn’t reaching the milestones. Like he didn’t roll over at four months, whatever the months are for that. Then we kind of suspected something was wrong and started looking for help.
The doctor was nice, but he said, I don’t even remember his name now, but he said “This will hold you back your whole life, you need to basically put him away, put him someplace where your life isn’t ruined.” It was devastating. I mean, that’s your baby, you know. And then we found a program in Philadelphia, at a place called the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, which I write about in my book. We went there for about four or five years and did a program with Collin through them.
At the beginning, it’s grief. I don’t know if people understand this, but it’s almost the kind of grief I feel like you would have losing a child. Because you have lost the child that you thought you were going to have. All these dreams about the first day of school, and the first girlfriend and the one that he’ll bring home that you don’t like, and then the one that you do like, and hope he marries, graduation, all these things are out the window. It took some time to get through that and you finally accept what you can’t change.
Bob was almost 16 years older than I was, and much wiser. I was 33 when we had Collin. I was going through the grief and all of that after we found out, and Bob sat me down one day and he said, “Honey, look, you’re grieving for your expectations. You’re grieving for the things that you’re not going to be able to experience with this child.” He said the truth is, Collin doesn’t know the difference. He is severely autistic. So Collin doesn’t know about marriage, and he doesn’t know about going to school and graduating high school and he doesn’t know about those things. So if we make his life as agreeable to him as possible, if we don’t put him in situations because he is severely autistic, where he’s made fun of or ridiculed, or those things don’t happen to him, then we’ll take care of them and his life will be fine.
That just really sort of straightened me out. Because I thought, the things I’m grieving over are my things. A few years after Bob passed away, I re-grieved everything as if it just happened. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I didn’t have my husband, I didn’t have a son who could go “Mom, we’ll get through this.” That took some time. But again, it was healing. Because at the end of all that, I came out of it again, being able to define joy, and my life and purpose.
Douglas: Is that where the idea for the memoir came from?
Denver: Bob had always told me long before he was sick, and long before he passed away, “If you want to write our story, feel free to do it. But if you do it, be straight about it. Don’t pull any punches, don’t sugarcoat it, tell it exactly like it was.” He thought our story would be helpful to people going through the same thing. People tell me that the book is raw. It’s just showing how you don’t know what life is gonna throw at you. You can be riding on top of the world, and then have a baby or do something that you think is going to be a happy addition to what you already have and it changes things completely.
Bob taught me so much he taught me to carry on. I’m just so grateful to have had 30 years with him. And now I’m grateful for my son who has taught me so much that I would never have learned.