4 September 2005 | WOverly04
Television in the late 1950s, for those of us who remember it, was largely black and white and a composite of live shows from New York, old films from the 1930s and 40s, and filmed series (usually made in Hollywood) designed for the new medium. Most of the filmed television series were centered around the folklore of 19th century western figures or contemporary big city detectives.
In 1959, 20th Century Fox decided to try something different. So, borrowing from the literary works of James Michener, they constructed a series centered around a modern day roving South Pacific sea captain. As luck would have it, a producer happened to spot 6' 5", 200 lb., 27 year old actor Gardner McKay sitting in the studio commissary reading--of all things--a book of poetry.
To help promote the new hour long series on ABC Television, Life Magazine writer Shana Alexander was called in to do a feature story. When she met the star, she changed the whole focus of her story to the new leading man, including a cover photo of McKay in a contemporary Apollo Belvedere pose.
Describing him as a likely candidate for the best looking man in America, she used a centerfold photo of McKay's face as a template for the handsome man, comparing him with former film star glamor boys Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Gregory Peck and Rock Hudson.
That magazine layout embarrassed McKay to the point that he once told an interviewer he never even FELT good looking. What was worse was that, despite the fact that he actually had been an experienced sailor, he was a very inhibited and inexperienced actor.
Critics mauled his lack of thespian-ism, but fans loved the guy (especially women). He was unassuming and likable despite his lack of theatrical talent. His acting abilities improved modestly (with much coaching), but 20th Century Fox did little to enhance the series (which was remarkably popular), failing to transfer the South Pacific setting to actual locations and ignoring the color process that had been recently introduced to t.v. audiences. McKay, however, continued to be personally popular--with both male fans of the series and admiring women.
He had done some minor roles in television and films before Paradise and did some after it, appearing on interview shows and doing theater in the round in addition to some primary roles and even one leading role in motion pictures. But the critics (justifiably) continued to ravage his efforts.
Fed up with the whole business, McKay turned down a personal film offer from Marilyn Monroe and left acting forever. He traveled the world, married and settled in Hawaii as a playwright and novelist, where he was very successful until his death in November of 2001 from prostate cancer.
But Adventures in Paradise lives on in the minds of everyone who was a fan. Gardner McKay was part of that fond memory. Perhaps the handsomest man to ever pass through Hollywood's portals, he was perfect as the gentle sea captain chasing a tropic paradise. And each week, he took us along for the trip. It was a great escape from the realities of everyday life and an unforgettable memory.