Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, died yesterday at the age of 89.
The news reporter for WXRT here in Chicago, Mary Dixon, wryly noted during her morning show that the Professor was the only eligible male on Gilligan’s Island. Watching the show as a young girl, “it was all about the professor,” she said.
For me, a young nerd in Junior High, the professor embodied a little more than that (not that being a brainy sex symbol wasn’t a major accomplishment in itself). Everyone looks for role models at that age, and Russell Johnson’s good-humored, everyman brainiac was perhaps the finest role model on the airwaves in the mid 70s for young science enthusiasts — and I can’t help but wonder who will be cast in the role in the upcoming remake.
There was no shortage of smart characters on television at the time, from Spock to Bruce Bixby’s David Banner (The Incredible Hulk) to Peter Falk’s genius detective Columbo. But none of them was as likable — or as endlessly inventive — as Russell Johnson’s easy-going Professor, who could build a lie detector and a sewing machine out of coconuts. Johnson’s Professor wasn’t just smart… he was funny and charming, and week after week he showed that over-the-top enthusiasm for science didn’t have to be a social liability if you didn’t want it to be. You could be both smart and well-liked; it didn’t have to be a choice.
It was obvious that, in the microcosm of civilization that was Gilligan’s Island, the Professor was the one individual who kept everything running. His was a thankless role. He was constantly taken for granted, many of his ideas failed, and not a single one of his inventions ever got them off the island. But Johnson filled that role with a character who was noble, kind, and constantly upbeat. Here was a man of science who fit in; who was admired and, yes, loved.