When my editor asked me to write a eulogy for Russell Johnson, I was a little at sea. Johnson, who passed away earlier this week at 89, was a working actor: the kind of guy with half a dozen television credits listed every year on his IMDB page. He was mainly a staple of 1950s science fiction, forming a go-to point of reference for anyone riffing on all those giant bugs and rubber aliens. Beyond that, he worked mostly in television, with guest star roles stretching as far as the eye could see. You could name a hundred actors just like him, all of whom found success (if not fame) in their work and most who left behind a modest legacy worthy of observance more than celebration.
But those other actors weren’t on Gilligan’s Island, and didn’t tap into the strangely bountiful reservoir of goodwill that that show did. It’s the ultimate television comfort food, and perhaps its ultimate guilty pleasure as well. No one overtly claims to love the show, and yet the ease with which we refer to it – the speed with which we make jokes about palm tree radios or quote the Skipper at the drop of a hat – says otherwise. Johnson himself noted that so many of us grew up on the show that it was like the castaways were our babysitters. Most of us think of them in that way. The kooky babysitters, with the cornball jokes that made us laugh in spite of ourselves and warm hearts hidden beneath that nutty façade. Our affection for them is undiminished, and thanks to reruns, a whole new audience discovered their simple joys every few years.
Johnson was a strangely vital part of that equation. Not the straight man (that was Alan Hale’s Skipper) nor one of the other lovable bumblers who couldn’t seem to get off that damn island no matter how hard their tried. As the Professor (Dr. Roy Hinkley, for the record), he was the voice of reason in a world gone mad. Whatever scrape the castaways got into, he could think of a way out of it. Whatever things they needed to make life more bearable, he could cobble together using bamboo shoots and string. He wasn’t immune from the show’s various hijinks, but he showed us how to deal with them, and though most of us resemble Gilligan more than we’d care to admit, all of us secretly hoped we could respond to trouble with the cool, resolute competence of Johnson’s Professor.
That’s a big reason why his death was treated with such sadness. He represented something dependable in our lives. Something we could count on as much as we could count on Gilligan to be there every afternoon at 4:00 PM after a rough day at school. All those giant bug movies he made weren’t much different: silly and overblown, but with a quiet message that even the biggest problems had eventual solutions. They wouldn’t have been the same without Johnson, which is what made him more than just another character actor eking out a respectable living. RIP Russell. Thanks for helping us forget our troubles for a while, and wherever you are now, I hope it has a copious supply of coconuts.