Russell Johnson died today, at age 89. He was the actor who played “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island, one of the worst TV series in the history of the small screen.
I despised Gilligan’s Island. I hated the characters, hated the idiotic concept, and thought it was offensively unfunny. When I was growing up, however, we watched TV as a family, and for some reason we watched Gilligan’s Island. (In retrospect, I suspect that my sister Cathy had a secret crush on Gilligan.)
I thought the Professor was the only tolerable character and I sympathized with him. He was disrespected from very outset of the show, when he and Mary Ann were lumped together on one screen as the annoying theme song sang out “the Professor and . . . Mary Ann.” In my view it was unfair and grossly dismissive to lump the Professor in with Mary Ann. Mary Ann was a perfectly fine, wholesome character, but if the pathetic band of castaways was ever going to get off the island it was because the Professor was going to figure out how to make a radio out of a coconut or create a teleportation device from a few palm fronds.
I suspect there were other nerdy kids like me who admired the Professor. Imagine having the breadth of scientific, biological, and engineering knowledge that the Professor displayed in virtually every episode! Imagine having to work like a dog on this week’s salvation while the Howells and Ginger pranced around, changing outfits 15 times a day! Imagine creating some elegant solution to get the group back to the mainland, only to have the imbecilic Gilligan wreck the plans through some inexplicable blunder! Imagine having the self-restraint to refrain from chopping Gilligan into fish bait and throwing him into the lagoon as shark chum!
Russell Johnson was a real-life war hero who flew combat missions in World War II and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down. He had many TV roles, but he will always be remembered as “the Professor” — and he will now live forever in the Gilligan’s Island reruns that play endlessly on cable TV stations. God rest his soul.