Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Tribute To Russell Johnson

“I am the Professor, and that's the way it is.”

(November 10, 1924 – January 16, 2014)

Russell Johnson was best known for playing Professor Roy Hinkley (the "Professor") on Gilligan's Island which aired from 1964 to 1967. Johnson had to deal with the fact that throughout a large part of his acting career he was to be typecast as a generic scientist or professor-type character.

Childhood & Family

  • Born on November 10, 1924, in Ashley, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania 
  • Parents: Russell Kennedy Johnson who died of pneumonia (1901-1932) and Minnie Wenonah Smink-Johnson (1902-1976) who was re-married to Thomas S. Lewis 
  • Siblings: Brothers:- Kenneth (1925-2012), David (1926-1976), and Paul Wesley (1932-1933). Sisters:- Lorraine Johnson-Crosby and Marian L. Johnson-Reeves (1923-2010) 
  • Education: attended Girard College, a private boarding school in Philadelphia for fatherless boys

Military Career

  • Enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet 
  • After completion of training, commissioned a second lieutenant 
  • Flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater during World War II as a bombardier in B-25 twin-engine medium bombers 
  • March 4, 1945, shot down during a low-level bombing and strafing run against Japanese military targets in the Philippine Islands, while flying as a navigator in a B-25. Johnson’s B-25 had to ditch in the sea. Both of his ankles were broken in the landing 
  • Johnson was awarded a Purple Heart as well the Air Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three campaign stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one campaign star, and the World War II Victory Medal 
  • November 22, 1945 after Japan's surrender, Johnson was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant

Acting Career

Johnson undertook acting studies at the Actors' Lab in Hollywood where he met actress Kay Cousins (1923-1980), whom he married in 1949.

He appeared with friend Audie Murphy in Column South and Tumbleweed in 1953 and Ride Clear of Diablo in 1954.

Johnson's early roles were mostly in westerns such as Law and Order and various TV series including;

  • Rod Cameron's crime drama, City Detective 
  • The religion anthology series Crossroads
  • Guest starring in the NBC western series, The Californians 
  • A recurring role as Marshal Gib Scott on ABC's western series, Black Saddle 
  • Four appearances in the military drama, The Silent Service, based on actual stories of the submarine section of the United States Navy
More significantly for the purposes of this blog, Johnston appeared in significant 1950s science fiction films and series episodes such as;
  • The Adventures Of Superman “The Runaway Robot” (1953)

  • It Came from Outer Space (1953) playing the role of George the linesman, just one of the townspeople who start disappearing but who later shows up in town, acting quite unlike himself. An alien speaks through George revealing that he is part of the crew of an extraterrestrial ship which inadvertently crash-landed on Earth

This Island Earth (1955) playing the role of scientist Dr. Steve Carlson. He, together with fellow scientists, Meacham and Adams, try to escape from Exeter whose activities and very presence Meacham is suspicious about. Russell Johnson has a small role but his character is quite heroic

  • Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) playing the role Hank Chapman the technician who is the real hero of the film. Funny how he struggled putting together a workable radio but could easily at a moment’s notice whip up a device to immobilize or kill a giant crab! We wouldn’t expect less from the “Professor.” 
  • The Space Children (1958) in which Russell Johnson is cast as the rather menacing alcoholic step father of one of the children

  • Twilight Zone “Execution” (1960) playing the role of a college professor 
  • Twilight Zone “Back There” (1961) in which his character attempts to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln 
  • Outer limits “Specimen Unknown” (1964) in which Johnson appeared as a crewmember on a U.S. space station

Post-Gilligan's Island

  • Johnson went on to appear in several movies and television shows, guest starring in such TV series as The Big Valley, The Invaders, Ironside, The F.B.I, and Gunsmoke. 
  • He had a daughter Kim and son David with his second wife Kay Cousins. 
  • In 1982, Johnson married Constance "Connie" Dane. Johnson was married three times
  • Johnson published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan's Isle, in 1993.
  • David Johnson died of AIDS-related complications on October 27, 1994
  • On January 16, 2014 Russell Johnson died from kidney failure at his home in Bainbridge Island, Washington at the age of 89

Russell Johnson will always be remembered as an accomplished actor who had some great supporting roles in some of the finest classic sci-fi films from the 1950s. Like us, his characters were not supermen types who could rise to meet any challenge and win. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. There are times when we are strong and times when we aren’t. Yes, we’re human and in films there are flawed human-type characters as well who need that certain kind of actor who can portray them well. Russell Johnson was one such actor. Of course, we’ll also remember a certain screen character's crazy inventions that didn’t always seem to work the way he intended or how his fellow castaways hoped they would! But like Gilligan, we always had faith in the “Professor.”

©Chris Christopoulos 2015

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