Jim Backus played the egotistical, but lovable millionaire Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. Howell made his money the old fashioned way, he inherited it from dear old dad. Backus, who also voiced Mister Magoo, played Howell as loud, but insecure and convinced that money was the only universal language. Howell and his wife Lovey, believed they were above everyone else and generally acted like it, except being marooned on an island was a great equalizer of sorts. The others on the island allowed the Howells to act a bit pompous and aristocratic in the social order.
Series producer/creator Sherwood Schwartz did not make the Howells bad people, just totally unable to figure out the lives of commoners and the emotions and values that really motivate people. You’ve seen the episodes so you know what a windbag Howell can be all the while clutching his teddy bear. Everyone called them Mr. and Mrs. Howell, strict formality, and essentially did their laundry and prepared the meals for them because the Howells really were not skilled in everyday living. Being rich is a full-time vocation.
Portraying the wealthy on television and film usually defined them as mean and misery, or somewhat kind and bumbling. Us commoners have always been intrigued with the lives of the rich and famous, there was a syndicated television show in the 1970s called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach. We even elected one of them President. When the aristocrats rode by in their gilded carriages, we peasants gawked and commented on how ostentatious and gaudy the display of wealth as we walked through the mud in our bare feet and soiled rags. Of course, this division of wealth has caused a few revolts and beheadings over the ages as wealth also seems to concentrate power and governance, in hands other than you and me. I like cake, but don’t tell me to have a piece, or even to eat a peach. That’s an entirely different story.
To Thurston Howell, everything could be solved with money, and for some reason, he carried stacks of it with him on the three-hour cruise. If you cannot buy it, you bribe or you figure out a way to get what you want by driving the other party out of business and pick it up for pennies on the dollar. Howell employed all of these methods, and usually they all backfired on him.
In the mid 1960s, the standard of living was rising for most Americans. If you lived in poverty in big cities, rural America like Appalachia or on a Native American reservation, the American Dream was not knocking on your door. It wasn’t even in your zip code. For most other Americans though, purchasing power was good and you could buy anything with credit. People like Thurston Howell were fat-cats, but the American pie was big enough for us to get a larger piece. Howell was a sympathetic character because the island was fairly democratic and Howell was often his own worst enemy. Down deep, he had a heart, something he preferred to keep hidden and others not to see.
Interestingly, in 1965, the federal tax rate for earnings over $100,000 was 70 percent. For 2020, the highest rate is 37 percent. If Mr. Howell were alive today, he would be singing, “How Sweet it is.”
The subject of wealth inequality is a big issue because as you can see from the chart below, America’s distribution of wealth now mirrors the Gilded Age of robber-barons.
I’m not anti-wealth. I’m against gaming the political and tax systems to primarily benefit the wealthy, through unfair tax policies and the falsity of supply-side economics.