Aloha, Professor: RIP Russell Johnson
I just read the news that veteran character actor Russell Johnson, known best as the Professor (Roy Hinkley) from Gilligan’s Island, passed away. The news was broken on Twitter by his co-star Dawn Wells, now one of the last two survivors of the original cast along with Tina Louise.
This is very sad news. Johnson was something special as the Professor, bringing an air of great intelligence and dignity to the role. He was the straight man, but with the charm of a leading man. And he was, much like his contemporary TV star Mr. Spock, a science nerd who made science nerds look cool and sexy. In a lot of ways, I think he and Spock were two of my most influential role models as a child. I was kind of nerdy and socially inept myself, but I was good at science and knowing stuff, and it was heartening to see that the Professor and Spock were people whose strengths were mainly intellectual but who were valued and appreciated for it. Although my attempts to emulate them didn’t work out too well, since real schoolchildren don’t respect the nerdy science guy as much as island castaways or starship crewpeople do. Still, I don’t blame the Professor and Spock for that. Judging from the other men in my family, I was probably going to turn out much the same way anyway, which is probably why I had such affinity for characters like the Professor.
But Johnson deserves enormous credit for making the Professor as heroic and engaging as he was. He actually made this silly sitcom seem educational at times. I once heard of a study where one group of students was shown an episode clip of the Professor explaining how to make a battery with lemon juice and metal strips, and another was shown a more conventional educational film explaining the same thing — and the group that saw the Gilligan’s Island clip learned it better! I think public television passed up a great opportunity — they should’ve hired Johnson to be the star of an educational show teaching about science. He could’ve anticipated Beakman and Bill Nye by a decade or two.
It’s also a shame that the special-effects technology of the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t up to a live-action Fantastic Four, since Johnson would’ve been absolutely perfect for Reed Richards. Anyone who’s seen Alex Ross’s renderings of Reed in Marvels knows that he feels the same way.
One can fairly say that Johnson deserved a better career than he had, that typecasting as a result of his Gilligan role may have kept him from the leading-man roles he was easily qualified for. But the Professor was a great, iconic role in its own right, and a great legacy for Johnson to leave. He will be remembered.