January 17, 2014

Russell Johnson, R.I.P.

In the days of my youth, when I most definitely favored Mary Ann over Ginger (and still do), there was something comforting about The Professor. Among the band of loonies occupying that uncharted island, The Professor often seemed to be the only sane one*. Unlike many of the others, he was usually slow to attack Gilligan. He was the focal point of whatever sexual tension might exist among the castaways (given that Mr. Howell was married, The Skipper was too much like Dad, and Gilligan was Gilligan). He was unquestionably brilliant, an early-day MacGyver able to concoct scientific marvels out of the most primitive materials. And yet, for all that, he was an everyman, neither a pocket-protector nerd nor an elitist, conquer-the-world mad scientist. Even his seldom-heard name, Roy Hinkley, was connotative of an ordinary man, someone who might have lived right next door.

*NPR had it right, describing him as "the voice of reason and calm on an island of shipwrecked ninnies."

It's fashionable, I suppose, to think of Gilligan as a show you should be embarrassed to have watched as a kid, before you became a sophisticated adult.  I can't speak to that; it's been a long time since I really tried to watch an episode.*  But even if Gilligan didn't stand the viewing test of time, there can be no doubt that it won a place in the hearts of millions of young viewers and stayed there forever, frozen in that memory, a series that was more than the sum of its stories.  It may or may not have been very good, but it endeared itself to people in a way that most series can only aspire to.

*I don't recall if I watched Gilligan's Island in its first-run days, though I suspect I did, but I definitely remember watching it when it was a fixture on Channel 11's after-school programming.  

How else to explain the outpouring of affection upon the news yesterday of the death of Russell Johnson at the age of 89?  It was Breaking News on CNN's website, a featured story in newspapers and broadcasts everywhere, an immediate topic on Facebook pages and Internet message boards and everywhere else classic television fans might reside.  Johnson was never a major star aside from Gilligan, but he did a lot of TV and movies over the years, playing both good guys and heavies.  Every time his face popped up (and it really wouldn't take long, if you were a dedicated viewer), the reaction was instantaneous: "Hey, it's The Professor!"

I started off talking about The Professor's likability quotient, and it seems that Russell Johnson the man was much the same way.  Dawn Wells said yesterday that "Russell was a true gentleman, a dear friend with a fantastic wit, and a wonderful actor."  It was a sentiment echoed by many others.

There are television stars and television celebrities, and we seem to have no shortage of the latter and too few of the former.  But Russell Johnson was something more than that; an icon, if you will, always remembered with warmth and affection by fans who invariably shared memories from their days watching Gilligan and probably knew the stories better than the actors did.  That takes something more than "talent," and it makes for a different kind of "success."  It's the ability to make that personal connection to the viewer and to leave an impression that can stay for upwards of 40 years.  Go back to the early 60s, check out what was on television, and see how many actors had that quality.

That's Russell Johnson's legacy, and I suspect there are a lot of stars and celebrities out there who would trade a lot to have it.

3 comments:

  1. Russell Johnson was also a World War II Veteran and Hero - Among his medals: Purple Heart

    Russell Johnson - His WWII service: He was a skilled bombardier in the Air Force, flying more than 40 missions in B-24s. His job--get the plane into position to delivery the bombs on target. I recall him describing how he used the bomb sights and the great pride he took when he knew the mission was successful. Almost every flight, he feared for his life knowing that the Japanese could shoot him down. But he stayed focused as a very young man on the task he was charged to complete.

    Eventually his luck in the air ran out. When his Liberator was shot from sky the crash badly broke his ankles. But he survived--earning numerous decorations for his valor and service to country.

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    1. Good to know those details. An admirable man, off-screen as well as on.

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  2. Wasn't Russell Johnson Gene Roddenberry's and Gene Coon's first choice to play Commodore Decker in the "Star Trek" episode "Doomsday Machine" (filmed shortly after ":Gilligan's Island left the air and broadcast in the Fall of 1967)?? Supposedly, many years later, Johnson claimed in an interview that he was up for that role and that he was a huge fan of the show.

    The story I heard was that NBC vetoed the casting choice and that Roddenberry and Coon instead got William Windom to play Decker, a guilt-ridden starship commander who beamed down the other 429 members of his crew to a planet subsequently destroyed by an automated super-weapon while Decker stayed onboard his crippled ship.

    Yes, Windom did well in that role, but for years, I wondered how well Russell Johnson would have played the part of Commodore Decker.

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