The Professor never got over Gilligan's Island

Last updated 05:00 12/02/2014

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Actor Russell Johnson became known to generations of television fans as "The Professor", the fix-it man who kept his fellow Gilligan's Island castaways supplied with gadgets.

Johnson was a busy but little-known character actor when he was cast in the slapstick 1960s comedy about seven people marooned on an uncharted Pacific island.

He played high school science teacher Roy Hinkley, known to his fellow castaways as The Professor. There was seemingly nothing he couldn't do when it came to building generators, short-wave radios and other contraptions from scraps of flotsam and jetsam he found on the island. But, as Russell would joke years later, the one thing The Professor never accomplished was figuring out how to patch the hole in the bottom of the SS Minnow so the group could get back to civilisation.

During its three-season run on CBS, critics repeatedly lambasted the show as insipid. But after its cancellation in 1967, it found generations of new fans in reruns and reunion movies.

One of the most recent of the reunion films was 2001's Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three-Hour Tour in History, in which other actors portrayed the original seven-member cast while Johnson and two other surviving cast members narrated and reminisced.

In a 2004 interview, Johnson analysed the show's lasting appeal.

"Parents are happy to have their children watch it," he said. "No-one gets hurt. No murders. No car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun - that's the charm."

He admitted he had trouble finding work after Gilligan's Island, having become typecast as the egg-headed professor. But he harboured no resentment for the show, and in later years he and other cast members, including Bob Denver, who had played the bumbling first mate Gilligan, often appeared together at fan conventions.

Johnson, Dawn Wells and Tina Louise were the last of the cast's survivors. Wells played vacationing farm girl Mary Ann Summers and Louise was sexy movie star Ginger Grant. Besides Denver, the other stars were Alan Hale Jr as Skipper Jonas Grumby and Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer as snooty millionaires Thurston and Lovey Howell.

"Russell was a true gentleman, a dear friend with a fantastic wit, and a wonderful actor," said Wells.

Before Gilligan's Island, Johnson had appeared in dozens of films and television shows. His TV credits included 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, Hawaiian Eye and Death Valley Days.

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He also appeared in more than two dozen feature films, including MacArthur, The Greatest Story Ever Told and cult science fiction favourites such as It Came From Outer Space. In the 1953 Western Law and Order, he took part in a gunfight with the film's star, Ronald Reagan.

Although he didn't work as often after Gilligan's Island, Johnson remained active into the late 1990s, appearing on such shows as My Two Dads, Dynasty and Newhart.

The future actor was part of a family of seven children.

He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and served as a B-24 bombardier on missions over the Pacific war zone, breaking his ankles in 1945 when his plane was shot down over the Philippine island of Mindanao. He was discharged as a first lieutenant in November 1945, having earned a Purple Heart and other medals.

Upon his discharge, Johnson enrolled at the Actors Lab in Hollywood under the GI Bill. Fellow actor Paul Henreid saw him in a play there and landed him a role as a villain in the film For Men Only. Until Gilligan's Island, the ruggedly handsome Johnson often played villains.

He married actress Kay Cousins after leaving the army, and the couple had a son, David, and a daughter, Kim. His wife died in 1980, and his son, a prominent Los Angeles Aids activist, died of Aids in 1994.

After remarrying, Johnson and wife Constance Dane moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1988.

Johnson wrote the memoir Here on Gilligan's Isle.

Survivors include his wife and daughter. AP

- The Southland Times

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