Sunday, January 19, 2014
Farewell to the Professor
I often think about what happens to the actor who becomes totally identified with a movie or TV role, often to their financial benefit, but at the price of being hopelessly typecast. Do they rail against their fate and refuse to have anything to do with the source of their fame? Or do the accept their lot and try to make best of it? The late Russell Johnson, best remembered as the professor on Gilligan's Island, was someone who took the latter approach.
Before signing up for that 3 hour tour, Mr. Johnson, a WWII veteran who studied acting on the GI Bill, was best remembered for his work in 50's sci-fi films, from classics like This Island Earth (1955) and turkeys like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), as well as many TV shows, including the Twilight Zone, Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He often played a scientist or other intellectual. In many ways he was the perfect type for the role of Roy Hinkley: Eagle Scout, high school science teacher, holder of 6 degrees; who boarded the Minnow to take a break from the book he was writing on ferns. The professor provided what little reality there was to the show--and the rest of them would have been dead in a few weeks without him. As a kid, watching those endless reruns, he was my favorite. Although the show was silly his character was, and he inspired an interest in science in many young viewers.
After Gilligan's Island he mostly appeared on TV, often in parts similar to the professor, or directly referencing the show. By all accounts he was endlessly friendly and patient with fans. But he also used his fame to bring attention to a major cause when it was still quite controversial, and it was this that raises him, in my eyes, from a favorite to a hero.
In his 1993 autobiography Here on Gilligan's Isle/the Professor's Behind-The-Scenes Guide to Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Gilligan's Island he wrote with great humor about the whole of his career, including the 3 hour tour.
But he also wrote with openness and honesty about his son David, who was gay and that he had AIDS, having lost his lover to it as well. (David would die a year later) "Nobody deserves to have this disease." he said. This was at a time when there was still a lot of stigma attached to the disease, but he knew he would reach an audience that might have avoided the subject. As someone who had already lost a friend to AIDS, I cannot tell you how much it meant to read those words at a time when people still just didn't talk much about the disease, especially on a personal level. Much of the later part of his life was devoted to fundraising for AIDS causes.
So farewell Mr. Johnson, you'll not be forgotten: you gave fans thrills and laughs and tried to make the world a better place as well.