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RIP: Russell Johnson

We say good-bye to one of our favorite castaways.

By Rob Vaux     January 18, 2014
Source: Mania.com


Russell Johnson
© Mania.com/Robert Trate

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.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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Muenster 1/18/2014 7:39:01 PM

Thanks for the touching and insighful eulogy Rob. Mr. Johnsons portrayal of the professor made an indelible impression on my life my interests... As did each other character on all young persons fortunate to have tuned to enjoy one the finest examples of American Commedia dell'arte on the small screen.

Mary Ann and Ginger are the only ones left, but for young men of all backgrounds- The Skipper, Gilligan, Thurston Howell, and The Professor represented all the best traits men aspire to; Bravery, Humor, Wealth, and Intelligence. And while Lovey (Natlie Shafer) is no longer with us, what child did not want a doting and supportive grandmother.

Maybe you're right. For 30 minutes every afternoon a friendly and familiar family watched over us.

doublec 1/18/2014 7:56:55 PM

 Well wriittten, Rob, and well said, Muenster.
RIP, Russell, and thank you.
 

RedHood2010 1/19/2014 7:21:31 AM

Well written sir!  Thanks for the correct description of the thoughts for many of us.  RIP Professor.

DarthoftheDead 1/19/2014 11:39:37 AM

 R.I.P Professor.....

hanso 1/19/2014 11:47:53 AM

 The Professor be partaking with the sacred herb alongside Gilligan in that island in the sky yo.  RIP

monkeyfoot 1/19/2014 8:52:00 PM

The Professor: one of my heroes. When I was a little kid I visualized Reed Richards as Russel Johnson.

Dazzler 1/20/2014 3:39:13 AM

I was actually watching my dvd complete collection of Gilligan's isle.  Right in the middle of the series.  After I heard of death I watched the next one involving them finding a robot they sent back to Hawai.  Of course the Prof had to program him to do it.  Great escapism.  My only thought on the series is I would totally track down the guest stars and kill them one by one for not trying hard enough to tell searchers where to find the castaways.  I mean the rich Howells themselves would have brought out enough bounty hunters to try and find them.  I know I thought too much about this.  

marcd30319 1/20/2014 9:38:46 AM

 Well said, sir!

invisioner 1/20/2014 10:10:42 AM

Dazzler, you just gave me a great idea for a short satire piece! that would be great!

mike10 1/20/2014 12:15:44 PM

I loved everything Mr. Johnson was in, from the Time Traveler on The Twilight Zone, to the scientist in This Island Earth, to the professor on Gilligans Island.

 Rest in Peace and thanks for the memories.

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