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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Russell Johnson, the Professor on Gilligan's Island

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Russell Johnson, the Professor on Gilligan's Island

Actor Russell Johnson, best known for his role as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, has died at the age of 89. Johnson was the last surviving male cast member of the series. By the time he was cast as the Professor—when he was still “Roy Hinkley” to his friends—Johnson had been in movies and TV for almost 15 years, appearing in several Westerns and sci-fi films, including a handful of B-movie classics like Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith’s Attack Of The Crab Monsters (1957), and This Island Earth (1955). This Island Earth would be revived more than 40 years later as the feature-within-the-feature of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996). When Johnson makes his entrance in that movie, one of the MST3K crew pays tribute to his most famous role by immediately saying, “What’s this ‘and the rest’ crap!?”

In the early 1960s, Johnson began devoting more of his energy to TV work, with a regular role on the Western series Black Saddle and guest spots on such programs as Riverboat, The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Rawhide, Wagon Train, and Ben Casey. With his ruggedly handsome features and trim build, Johnson seemed a good bet to someday headline his own dramatic series, and he later said he took the job on Gilligan’s Island as a placeholder, never dreaming that it would last longer than 13 weeks. Premiering in 1964, the comedy ran for three years, and CBS had already notified the cast that they’d be picked up for a fourth when the network suddenly reversed itself and cancelled the show. (The show reportedly fell victim to the whims of CBS President Bill Paley, whose wife had just received word that her favorite show, Gunsmoke, had been canceled, and pressured him to make an executive decision to bring it back.)

Although Johnson continued to work in TV steadily throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, like so many in the cast, he never fully shook his identity as the Professor—especially as Gilligan became a staple of syndicated reruns. For years, Johnson expressed frustration over the ceiling that his being identified as the Professor seemed to put over his career, but in later years, he seemed to have made his peace with it. “I am the Professor,” he said, “and that’s the way it is. The show has brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”

After the series went off the air, Johnson reprised the character on two Saturday morning cartoon series, The New Adventures Of Gilligan (1974) and Gilligan’s Planet (1982) and a string of reunion TV movies (Rescue From Gilligan’s Island, The Castaways On Gilligan’s Island, The Harlem Globetrotters On Gilligan’s Island), as well as in Gilligan-centric episodes of ALF and Meego. He and his fellow surviving castaways also appeared on a 1995 Roseanne episode with the self-explanatory title, “Sherwood Schwartz—A Loving Tribute”. In 1993, Johnson published a book, Here On Gilligan’s Island, and a year later he promoted it on Space Ghost Coast To Coast. That appearance ended with the superhero turned talk show host blasting Johnson with his armband after Johnson asked him, “Are you Beavis or Butt-head?”

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