Russell Johnson: More Than The Professor
If you only know Russell Johnson as the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, you may be surprised to know that the actor started his career on the dark side of the big screen, with a featured role in a George Raft noir, Loan Shark (1952). In this feature, Johnson played a hard-boiled character who was far from the amiable braniac he portrayed on the popular television series. Today, on his 89th birthday, we offer many happy returns of the day and pay tribute to this actor whose career consisted of more than just making radios out of coconuts!
Johnson was born in Ashley, Pennsylvania, one of seven children. When he was eight years old, his father died and Johnson was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for low-income orphans. After his graduation, he joined the Army and he earned a Purple Heart during World War II; his plane was shot down in the Phillipines and he broke his ankles crash landing on the island of Mindanao.
The G.I. Bill allowed Johnson to enroll in the Actors Lab In L.A. following his stint in the Army, and he was reportedly discovered there by actor/director Paul Henreid, who cast Johnson is his film For Men Only (1952), which focused on college hazing. Also that year, Johnson stepped into the shadowy world of film noir when he played a shady member of a loan sharking racket in Loan Shark (1952).
During the next few years, Russell was seen in such sci-fi features as It Came From Outer Space (1953) and This Island Earth (1955), and in several westerns, including three starring his good friend Audie Murphy. He also appeared on a variety of television series beginning in the 1950s, including The Adventures of Superman, You Are There, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. By the 1960s, his career was almost exclusively on the small screen, and he kept busy with roles on some of the most popular shows on television. Then, in 1964, he was cast as Professor Roy Hinkley, Jr., in Gilligan’s Island. When the series ended after a three-year run, Johnson was seen in other television shows, but he would always be seen in the eyes of the public as the Professor, and he kept the character alive with appearances in made-for-TV Gilligan’s Island movies and other specials, such as Rescue From Gilligan’s Island (1978) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981).
“It used to make me upset to be typecast that way,” Johnson once said of his Gilligan’s Island role. “But as the years have gone on, I have given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. The show has brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”
Johnson continued acting in the 1980s and 1990s, and he wrote his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle in 1993. Now retired, he lives on Bainbridge Island in western Washington.
Happy birthday, Russell Johnson!