Russell Johnson: More Than "the Professor"

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Russell Johnson Jr. was born on November 10, 1924 to Russell and Minnie Johnson in Ashley, Pennsylvania. Russell was the second oldest of six children (three brothers and two sisters). His father, Russell Johnson Sr., died in December of 1932, when Russell was just eight. Sadly, his little brother, Paul Wesley Johnson, died shortly thereafter. Minnie was to re-marry, to a man named Thomas L. Lewis.

As a teenager, Russell attended Girard College, a private school for fatherless boys in Philadelphia. After graduating, Russell enlisted in the US Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. After finishing his training, Russell was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Russell flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific theater during World War II, as a combat bombardier in B-25 twin-engined medium bombers. On March 4, 1945, while flying with the 100th bombardment squadron, his B-25 and two others were shot down during a low-level bombing and strafing run against Japanese military targets in the Philippine Islands. Russell broke both ankles in the landing and one of his fellow pilots was killed.

He received a Purple Heart for his injuries, as well as an air medal, the Atlantic-Pacific medal with 3 campaign stars, the Philippine Celebration Medal with one campaign star, and the World War II victory medal. After Japan's surrender, he was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant in November 1945. He joined the Air Force Reserves and used the G.I. Bill to study acting at the actor's lab in Hollywood.

He met his second wife, Kay Cousins, there and married her in 1949. (He had previously been married to Edith Cahoon for five years, 1943-1948.)

Russell began his diverse and eclectic career as a young actor with an appearance on a short-lived TV series called Fireside Theater in 1950, playing the role of a sailor. He made his first "notable" appearance on TV in The Adventures of Superman (filmed in 1951, broadcast in January 1953) in an episode called "The Runaway Robot," playing a gangster called "Chopper."

In 1957, he had a role in another short-lived TV series called Casey Jones, a show which featured another young, upcoming actor in it's cast- Alan Hale, Jr.  In 1961, he co-starred with a fledgling thespian named William Shatner in an episode of Boris Karloff's thriller titled The Hungry Glass.

In 1964, he played a crew member of the U.S. space station in an episode of The Outer Limits. During this period, Russell had parts in dozens of long-forgotten TV series as well as being featured in classic shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, The Real McCoys, Ben Casey and Wagon Train.

But without question, his most famous and beloved early television roles are his two classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. In 1960, Russell starred in the episode "Time Machine," where he plays a scientist who brings a notorious outlaw (played by Albert Salmi) from the Old West into present time. He followed this wonderful episode up with one equally as good, in "Back There," he again deals with the subject of time travel, when this time he goes back into the past and tries to prevent the Lincoln assassination.

Russell later recalled his early acting days on television: "Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Dakotas. You name a Western, I did it. I was always the bad guy in Westerns. I played more bad guys than you could shake a stick at until I played the Professor. Then I couldn't get a job being a bad guy."

The quintessential journeyman actor, Russell also had quite an extensive and diverse career in movies. A good friend of Audie Murphy's, Russell acted in three films (all Westerns) with the movie star/war hero: Column South (1953), Tumbleweed (1953) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954).

He also found work in the fraternity hazing expose For Men Only (1952), Loan Shark (1952) with George Raft, and Law and Order (1953), playing opposite future president Ronald Reagan. He was in the cast of Ma and Pa kettle in Waikiki (1955), worked in the horror cult classic Attack of the Crab Monsters (1956), and was featured in the Roger Corman low-budget rock film Rock all Night (1957). His last film of the early '60's was a bit part as a scribe in the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

In 1964, after a decade and half of relative show business obscurity, Russell Johnson was about to become elevated to the status of pop culture icon.

In late 1963, the pilot episode of a new series called Gilligan's Island was filmed, featuring Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. Three other cast members were featured in the show: Kit Smythe played the dumb blonde, Ginger, Nancy McCarthy played Bunny, a secretary, and John Gabriel played the Professor. These last three were replaced by three other actors after the show had been screened before a test audience.

Tina Louise took over the Ginger role, changing her from a dumb blonde to a movie star seductress, Dawn Wells converted Bunny to "Mary Ann" (losing her secretary status and becoming a Kansas farm girl) and Russell Johnson replaced John Gabriel and became "the Professor."

The Professor's real name in the show was Roy Hinkley. He was always referred to as on the show "the Professor" just as Alan Hale Jr. was "the Skipper." This was a deliberate choice made by series creator Sherwood Schwartz, who wanted the central theme of Gilligan's Island to be about a diverse group of people, all working and existing together in peace and harmony. (In the show's opening credits, Jim Backus is "the Millionaire" and Tina Louise is "the Movie Star.")

While most of us are aware that both Tina Louise (Ginger) and Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) were very deliberately made into sex symbols on the show, few know that when Russell auditioned for the Professor role, he was asked to remove his shirt. Apparently, the suits at CBS wanted some beefcake to go along with the show's female cheesecake.

Russell adamantly refused and auditioned with shirt intact. Refusing to be judged on his virility and sex appeal, he got the role, but while Tina and Dawn were making men drool the world over, Russell's natural good looks were also to make many a female heart flutter.

The Professor would become TV's greatest polymath, often spouting off erudite and esoteric terms and nomenclature. Russell was later to admit that while he knew and could recite his intellectual egghead lines, he often had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

Russell was loved by all his fellow cast members, but developed a special kinship with Dawn Wells. Perhaps this was because the Professor and Mary Ann were looked upon as slightly more than afterthoughts in the show's first season. In the original Gilligan's Island theme song, used in season one (1964-65) of the series, after all the other cast members are named specifically, the Professor and Mary Ann are referred to as "the rest." For the rest of their lives, Russell and Dawn Wells would send each other Christmas cards and sign them "Merry Christmas. Love, the rest."

Playing the island's resident straight man on the show, Russell was recalled fondly by Dawn as "the funniest cast member in real life."

In 1967, Gilligan's Island finished its original run after 98 episodes. Being immortalized as the Professor was a mixed blessing. Russell's residual paychecks ended after the first six reruns of each episode. (Dawn Wells was the only Gilligan's Island cast member smart enough to get a perennial residual payment deal. She receives residuals from the show to this day.) Being typecast, as were most of the show's other cast members, Russell still managed to find TV work on such TV staples as Death Valley Days, Lassie, That Girl and Ironside; he also had a small role in the 1977 film MacArthur.

Russell was married three times. His second wife, Kay, died in 1980. He married his third and final wife, Constance "Connie" Dane in 1982. The two were to remain married until Russell's death.

He had two children, a daughter named Kim and a son named David. Sadly, David was to die in 1994 from AIDS-related factors. (David's partner was to die from the same cause in 1986). After David's death, Russell devoted countless hours raising money for AIDS-related causes.

He wrote his memoirs in 1993, a highly readable and enjoyable book called Here on Gilligan's Isle. Russell Johnson died on January 16, 2014, from kidney failure. He was 89 at the time.

Recalling his immortal role the Professor, Russell said: "It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor. But as the years have gone by, I've given in. I am the Professor and that's the way it is. Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes, just plain silly fun. It's brought a lot of joy to people and that's not a bad legacy."

(YouTube link)

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What Eddie forgot to mention was that after being shot down over the Phillippines in WWII (the Big one as Archie used to call it), Russell was only able to save himself after making a radio out of a coconut.
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Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) said after Russell passed away: "and the other half of 'The Rest' is gone."
Russell never thought that "Gilligan's Island" would ever last... now over 50 years later, it's still being seen by countless new generations still.
Every now and then I check in on the "Gilligan's Island Fan Club" at where you can buy T-shirts and listen to the Gilligan Island Theme Song. There's also a link to hear Russell actually talk about his role on the show.
Thanks for the great article Eddie!!!
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