Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Late Great Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson, best known for playing The Professor on the classic American sitcom Gilligan's Island, died today at the age of 89. The cause was kidney failure.

Russell Johnson was born on 10 November 1924 near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. After his father died when he was ten Mr. Johnson's mother sent him and his brothers to the Girard College, a private boarding school for orphaned children, in Philadelphia. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force as an aviation cadet. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and served as both a bombardier and a navigator aboard B-24 bombers. Wounded when his B-24 was shot down over Zamboanga City, Philippines, he was awarded the Purple Heart. He also received the Air Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one service star, and the World War II Victory Medal. On 22 November 1945 he was honourably discharged with the rank of first lieutenant.

Following World War II Russell Johnson attended the Actors’ Laboratory in Los Angeles, California. He made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of Fireside Theatre. In the Fifties he was a regular on the Western TV series Black Saddle, playing Marshall Gib Scott. He also guest starred on such shows as Adventures of SupermanKing's Row, The Lone Ranger, Climax, Medic, Circus Boy, Lux Video Theatre, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Lawman, and Riverboat. He made his film debut in For Men Only (1952). During the decade he appeared in such films as Loan Shark (1952), Rancho Notorious (1952), Seminole (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Black Tuesday (1954), This Island Earth (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Rock All Night (1957), and Courage of Black Beauty (1957).

In 1963 Russell Johnson was cast in the role of The Professor (whose given name was Roy Hinkley) on Gilligan's Island. The show was a hit and was still getting good ratings when it was cancelled after three years to make room for Gunsmoke (which had just been saved from the axe by CBS chairman William Paley himself). It went onto to be one of the most phenomenally successful syndicated reruns of all time. In the Sixties he also guest starred on such shows as  ThrillerThe Twilight Zone, The Deputy, The Detectives, Route 66, Tales of Wells Fargo, Ben Casey, Wagon TrainRawhide77 Sunset Strip, The Big Valley, and Lassie. He appeared in the films A Distant Trumpet (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and Cry for Poor Wally (1969).

In the Seventies Mr. Johnson was a semi-regular on Owen Marshall, Counsellor at Law. He provided the voice of The Professor on the Saturday morning cartoon The New Adventures of Gilligan. He also reprised the role of The Professor in the reunion movies Rescue from Gilligan's Island (1978) and The Castaways on Gilligan's Island (1979). He guest starred on such shows as Marcus Welby M.D., Ironside, Gunsmoke, Hawkins, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Police Story, Wonder Woman, and Lou Grant. He appeared in the films The Man from Independence (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and The Great Skycopter Rescue (1980).

In the Eighties he provided the voice of The Professor for the Saturday morning cartoon Gilligan's Planet and reprised the role for the reunion movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island (1981). He guest starred on such shows as Bosom Buddies, The Jeffersons, Buffalo Bill, Dallas, MacGyver, Fame, Newhart, ALF (on which he reprised his role as The Professor), Knot's Landing, and My Two Dads. He appeared in the films Off the Wall (1983) and Blue Movies (1988).

In the Nineties he guest starred on Roseanne (reprising his role as The Professor) and Meego (again reprising his role as The Professor). He provided the voice of General Cho for the video game Hellbender.

There can be no doubt that Russell Johnson is best known for his role as The Professor on Gilligan's Island. And I think most fans of classic television would agree that he was very good in the role. Among castaways for whom intelligence (or at least common sense) was often at a premium, The Professor was the one who was always smart. Indeed, I think in many respects The Professor was an important character in television history. Not only was he intelligent, but he was also reasonably handsome. In an era when scientifically inclined, intelligent characters were often very old men or extremely nerdy, The Professor demonstrated that a character could be both intelligent and good looking. This might not seem important now, but it was probably an important thing for many intelligent little boys who grew up watching the show to know.

Of course, Russell Johnson's career was much more than The Professor. Indeed, he was a very prolific actor on television and played in a variety of roles. He appeared frequently on the Western television shows so prevalent in the Sixties, often in roles as unlike The Professor as possible. He could be very convincing as both outlaws or lawmen. In the Fifties Mr. Johnson also appeared frequently in films. There he could also be found in roles that were very different from The Professor. Indeed, in one of his earliest roles, in the film Loan Shark (1952), he played a vicious heavy named Charlie Thompson. In the film Back at the Front he played a smuggler. Not only did Russell Johnson play a wide variety of roles, but he also appeared in a number of different genres. During his film career he appeared in everything from films noirs to Westerns to science fiction films. And while he may be best known for his work in Western TV shows outside of Gilligan's Island, he appeared on television shows as varied as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66. Although Russell Johnson is best known as The Professor on Gilligan's Island, his career consisted of so much more. 

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