Tragic news for classic television fans in Fresno today as actor Russell Johnson, best known for his role as Professor Roy Hinkley on Gilligan's Island, passed away today at the age of 89.
As reported by various news sources such as TMZ, Johnson died of kidney failure at his home in Bainbridge Island, Washington, at 5:21 AM on January 16, 2014. This leaves actresses Tina Louise (who played Ginger Grant) and Dawn Wells (who played Mary Ann Summers) as the only surviving members of the original Gilligan's Island cast.
Wells posted on her Facebook page, "My 2 favorite people are now gone. The professor past (sic) away this morning. My heart is broken." The other person she refers to who died is Bob Denver, who played the title role of Gilligan, who died in 2005.
Johnson was on the show from 1964 to 1967. Incidentally, despite being a major character, Johnson was not featured in the original opening of the show, with the characters of the Professor and Mary Ann merely referred to as "The rest," but Denver insisted that they both be included and that happened later.
As outlined by his Wikipedia page, Johnson lived quite an eventful life even before he ever pursued a career in Hollywood. Hewas born in Ashley in Luzerne County in Northeastern Pennsylvania, just south of Wilkes-Barre, and was a graduate of Girard College, a private boarding school for orphaned children in Philadelphia. After high school, he joined the United States Army Air Forces during World War II as an aviation cadet and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He flew 44 combat missions as a bombardier in B-25 bombers. While flying as a navigator in a B-25 with the 100th Bombardment Squadron, 42nd Bombardment Group, 13th Air Force, his plane and two other B-25s were shot down in the Philippines in March 1945 during a low level bombing and strafing run against Japanese targets. The planes were hit by intense flak and had to ditch in the waters off the port of Zamboanga. During the ditching, he broke both his ankles and the radioman next to him was killed. Johnson earned a Purple Heart for this mission. He was also awarded the Air Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three service stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one service star, and the World War II Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged with the rank of first lieutenant on November 22, 1945. He then joined the Army Reserve and used the GI Bill to fund his acting studies at the Actors Lab in Hollywood. At acting school he met actress Kay Levey, and they married on July 23, 1949.
He became a close friend of Audie Murphy and later appeared with him in three of his films, Column South and Tumbleweed in 1953 and Ride Clear of Diablo in 1954. But Johnson's Hollywood career officially began in 1952, with the college fraternity hazing exposé For Men Only, and with Loan Shark, released that same year and starring George Raft. His early roles were mainly in westerns such as Law and Order (opposite Ronald Reagan), and science fiction such as It Came from Outer Space (1953).
During the fifties, he guest starred on Rod Cameron's syndicated crime drama, City Detective, also he also played the head of a gang of crooks in the seventeenth episode of the first season of The Adventures of Superman. He was cast on the religion anthology series, Crossroads, played "The Sundown Kid" in an episode of the 1958 NBC western series Jefferson Drum, and guest starred in yet another NBC western series, The Californians.
Late in 1958, both Johnson and Joe Flynn were cast in the episode "The Bells of Fear" of the syndicated adventure series Rescue 8, starring Jim Davis and Lang Jeffries. He was cast in the role of Darius in the 1959 episode, "The Unwilling", of the NBC western series, Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds. He appeared three times on the syndicated military drama The Silent Service, based on actual stories of the submarine section of the United States Navy. He was cast as Hugh Grafton and as Tom Richards in two 1960 episodes, "Intermission" and "The Desperate Challenge", both with June Allyson on her CBS anthology series, The DuPont Show with June Allyson. He was then cast as John T. Metcalf in the 1962 episode "Mile-Long Shot to Kill" of CBS's anthology series, GE True, hosted by Jack Webb. In 1963, he was cast in an episode of the short-lived ABC/Warner Brothers western series, The Dakota, and later in that same year, he was cast in the series premiere of the ABC medical drama Breaking Point starring Paul Richards and Eduard Franz.
From 1959 to 1960, Johnson landed a recurring role as Marshal Gib Scott on the ABC half-hour western series, Black Saddle, with Peter Breck as the gunslinger-turned-lawyer Clay Culhane, Anna-Lisa as Nora Travers, J. Pat O'Malley as Judge Caleb Marsh, and Walter Burke as Tim Potter. Both is addition to his numerous classic western appearances, classic science fiction fans will recognize Johnson for appearing in two episodes in The Twilight Zone. He attempted to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in "Back There," and he appeared again as a college professor in the episode, "Execution." Incidentally, the plot of both episodes involved time travel from the 20th to the 19th centuries. He also appeared in an episode of The Outer Limits called "Specimen: Unknown," where he played a a crew member with the rank of major, on a U.S. space station.
But for all of the other roles Johnson has played in his career, it is his performance as "The Professor" on Gilligan's Island for which he is best known. His character was a highly knowledgeable polymath able to build all sorts of inventions out of the most rudimentary materials available to him on the island, and yet, as Johnson himself pointed out, he still could not fix the hole in the Skipper's boat. Gilligan's Island aired from 1964 to 1967, but has been shown in reruns continuously ever since. Johnson got the role despite refusing to take off his shirt for the audition, however, before accepting the role he did make producer Sherwood Schwartz promise that any scientific statements written for his character be accurate.
After the show ended, Johnson appeared in several other movies and television shows, including The Invaders, Death Valley Days, Lassie, Ironside, The F.B.I, and Gunsmoke. Perhaps his most notable post-Gilligan appearances were in the miniseries Vanished, based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel (1971), an uncredited role in the Robert Redford spy thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), and on the NBC soap opera Santa Barbara. He also played the sheriff in several episodes of the ninth season of Dallas; known to fan as the infamous "dream season," hence why his character never returned for season ten.
He even entertained fans at the 1996 MST3K ContevtioConExpoFest-a-Rama 2: Electric Boogaloo on the "Celebrity Panel". Johnson was invited for his role in the movie-within-a-movie of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, This Island Earth, but ended up spending most of the time answering questions about his time on Gilligan's Island.
Johnson is his third wife, Constance Dane, and his daughter, Kim Johnson. His son, David, ran the AIDS program for Los Angeles, California, until David's death from complications of AIDS in 1994. Since his son's diagnosis, Johnson had been a full-time volunteer for AIDS research fundraising.
Russell Johnson will be missed by friends and family all over the world. This examiner extends his condolences to his loved ones.