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Many dimensions to Russell Johnson: AIDS activist, B-movies and Gilligan’s prof

Unfortunately, most people will remember Russell Johnson as the handsome professor of the TV show “Gilligan’s Island” who always seemed a bit flummoxed around sexy starlet Ginger.

The Professor had many facets to his career and life.
The Professor had many facets to his career and life.
Publicity stills "Gilligan's Island"
Russell Johnson toward the end
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Unfortunate, only because he had many more dimensions to his life—and his career.

He always appreciated that I knew some of his great B-movie sci-fi classics, like “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “This Island Earth” and “It Came from Outer Space.”

But, I also knew him as an avid AIDS activist. He was involved in charity events when I met him in the early 1990s, before his son David died of the disease in 1994. I also met the actor many times after his son’s death at charity events, and one time with actress Beverly Garland at the hotel named after her in Studio City, Calif. “Gilligan’s Island” was shot in Studio City too, at the CBS Radford Studios lot and a piece of the lagoon still remains.

Garland and Johnson co-starred in a Western called “The Saga of Hemp Brown,” also starring Rory Calhoun. Garland was a circus performer in that one. At the hotel, they posed in front of a poster of the movie that had both of their names on it.

Garland and Johnson were also in some old “Twilight Zone” episodes, too. Johnson plays a professor in both of them (good training for his upcoming TV role), and both involve time travel. “Back There” is most memorable because he plays a professor who finds himself back in history on the day that Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In “Execution,” Johnson plays a professor who brings back a man from the past who was about to be hanged for murder.

Johnson was great at playing the heavy, and a creepy guy, not at all similar to the likable professor he is most noted for portraying on TV. One of his kitschiest movies was “The Space Children,” which was spoofed in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 season and is about a disembodied brain from space that communicates telepathically with the children of scientists that are staging a nuclear war. The brain is in cahoots with the children stop the nuclear annihilation.

Johnson also starred with Ronald Reagan in 1953 in the Western “Law and Order” and also appeared in the Westerns “Ride Clear of Diablo” and “Seminole.”

But, he always appreciated someone knowing that he fought the Metalunians in the ambitious “This Island Earth.” (He once again plays a professor, who is killed by the aliens when their car is attacked.)

Johnson died in Washington at the age of 89 of kidney failure.

Johnson long ago made peace with the fact that he would always be loved and remembered for his role as the Professor (and before that “and the rest” in the opening title song), but do yourself a favor and check out some of his other works, too. They’re all on Netflix.

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