Russell Johnson: TV's Nerd Pioneer
Ron Seifried | On 16, Jan 2014
Growing up in the shadow of 60’s sitcom television, a little island some distance from Hawaii held my fascination. Lost after a three hour tour, 5 passengers and two crew members have forever been etched in our memories of a simple tropical paradise wrapped in weekly 30 minute episodes of a never-ending pursuit to escape back to the civilization.
One character tried carefully to balance the missing technology in the jungle. Time and again, The Professor pushed his genius to the limit with a couple of coconuts, bamboo or other vegetative byproduct. Russell Johnson was a recurring actor lost in the endless weekly TV guest spots until he was discovered as the perfect straight man in the island of misfit castaways.
And what a crew! They were like family to me. As a little boy watching the reruns, I related to the naiveté of Gilligan and imagined getting struck by the Skippers hat on a regular basis. I even went so far to have my mom buy me a captain’s hat just like the Skipper. By the mid-70’s, only white captain hats were available, but I adjusted.
The Howells was like the grandparents I always wanted: RICH. And Thurston sounded just like Mr. McGoo. Probably a coincidence. Ginger for me was unattainable, in her sequined gowns, perfect makeup and blow-dried hair. The big sister I never had the pleasure of knowing. Maryann was the innocent aunt of slutty Daisy Duke that came around just in time for my adolescence. My first TV crush.
But you knew everything was safe as long as The Professor was around. The anchor that stabilized the silliness and was an overqualified genius, he stopped short of figuring out how to get off that damn island. Some of his contraptions were just like the Mouse Trap board game, and endless cacophony of moving parts. Those inventions were his punch lines. The producers had the understanding that not every cast member could be a comedic foil, and limited The Professors parts to scientific experiments.
The Professor probably inspired more kids than most 60’s era TV actors. His creations of biological experiments not only advanced the island’s primitive culture, but were an extension of President Kennedy’s dream of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It is ironic that the last day of filming the pilot episode was the day the President was assassinated.
We take for granted technology that fits in the palm of our hands. Back then, the Professor was a fictional creation with real possibilities. Russell Johnson could be considered the missing link between the cavemen and space explorers in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But technology has its price, if you take into account The Planet of the Apes.
Giligan’s Island was a must-see TV show for me in the late 70’s. Airing daily on the local channel 5, it was easy to get lost in the safe haven of the exotic backlot of CBS Radford Studios in Studio City, CA.. By the time I discovered the show in reruns, the first season of black and white episodes were in semi-permanent storage. I wasn’t aware of the colorless season until many years later, and by then my viewing habits changed considerably. I don’t recall ever watching the first season, so my run with the show were the color episodes until the long awaited made-for-TV rescue film in 1978, and for that I was eternally grateful.
Yes, I loved the fact that thanks to The Professor’s ingenuity, the lost gang tied together their huts for a makeshift houseboat and floated out to sea after a terrible hurricane and were miraculously discovered by a search team not looking for them after 15 years. I can still feel the lump in my throat when one by one, each castaway looked up in the sky toward the whirring sound of the rescue copter and said “we’re saved.” I didn’t even notice Ginger was a completely different actress. But then again, I was firmly in the Maryann camp.
Imagine my disappointment at the end of the movie that they ended up stranded on the very same island. I must of blocked out how they got back on the island. My 10 year old emotions were too fragile for such a traumatic event.
I barely remembered watching the 1st sequel, and I have some vague memory of the Harlem Globetrotters in the third movie. Weren’t they also paired together in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series? The franchise ran its course and I moved on to Star Wars and baseball cards.
Until the mid 90’s. Thanks to the success of The Brady Bunch Movie, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of both series, was exploring a feature film spinoff/reboot of Gilligan’s Island. I loved the fish-out-water take on The Brady Bunch, and was looking forward to a return with my seven family members. A combination of lack of funding and alleged weak script relegated this project to exile. I believe that Tina Louise and her supposed hatred of Ginger put a kibosh on the project, but that’s for another time.
Alas, we still may see a return to Gilligan’s Island. It’s been reported that Josh Gad will co-star and write a feature film. The franchise must live on, or in this case maybe remain stranded?
Today we lost Russell Johnson at the age of 89 to kidney failure. The grandfather of the today’s nerds in “The Big Bang Theory,” we owe him eternal thanks for inspiring generations of scientists, doctors and professors.