By Mike Lipton
Updated September 19, 2005 12:00 PM

As the lovably inept title castaway on Gilligan’s Island, he would set his pants on fire, bonk the Skipper with a boomerang and tangle himself up in a hammock. In real life, Bob Denver “was the opposite of the goofy guy he played. He was a very bright guy,” says friend and castmate Russell Johnson, 80, who played the show’s brainy Professor. But “he wasn’t the opposite in terms of sweetness, generosity and kindness.”

Which made Denver’s death at 70 on Sept. 2, from complications from cancer treatment, all the more wrenching. “The last three or four months have been tough,” says his longtime agent Mike Eisenstadt, noting that the actor underwent quadruple bypass surgery in May. In the end, at his side at a North Carolina hospital was his fourth wife, Dreama, 55, a Web designer, and his four children, aged 21 to 45. “That was great for Bob, to all be there and be together, to send him off with a smile,” says Johnson. “He didn’t want grief; he always said he wanted a party.”

Denver was beloved by fans who knew him not only as Gilligan (a role he played on the 1964-67 sitcom, which won over new generations in repeats) but also as Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik sidekick on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63). It was on Gilligan’s Island, though, that the onetime grammar school teacher from New Rochelle, N.Y., remained happily stranded for most of his life. Even after Gilligan ended, and the TV reunion movies came and went, he continued to make public appearances—in large part, says series creator Sherwood Schwartz, because “he had to make a living,” having failed to secure any of the show’s hefty syndication residuals.

Still, his decision to move to the mountains of West Virginia with Dreama “was to get away from recognition,” says Schwartz. (He inadvertently raised his profile after being busted in 1998 for possessing an ounce of marijuana—a misdemeanor.) For Denver, says agent Eisenstadt, “family came first.” Especially Dreama. “They were married 28 years, but they were like newlyweds,” he says. “Just the way they spoke to each other—it was magical.”

Among his Gilligan’s Island cast-mates, Denver remained very close to Dawn Wells, 67, who played farm girl Mary Ann. After he fell ill, Wells talked often to Dreama. “She told me how extremely courageous he was,” says Wells. “As an actor,” she adds, “he saw the world through the eyes of a child; as a person he had intellect and wisdom in his soul.”

Mike Lipton. Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles