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UPDATE | The Professor, Bainbridge Island’s most famous resident, dies at age 89

Russell Johnson began his career in several Westerns before gaining fame on “Gilligan’s Island.”   - Photo courtesy Connie Johnson
Russell Johnson began his career in several Westerns before gaining fame on “Gilligan’s Island.”
— image credit: Photo courtesy Connie Johnson

They asked him three times, and each time, he said “No.”

On the fourth request, Russell Johnson finally agreed to hang up his familiar black hat and slip into the role that would make him a television icon.

Johnson, a Bainbridge Island resident known to millions worldwide as the Professor on the hit 1960s sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island,” passed away at home Thursday, Jan. 16. He was 89.

Michael Eisenstadt, Johnson’s agent for more than 20 years, said the actor was a gracious and considerate soul.

“A gentleman is the first word that comes to mind,” said Eisenstadt, whose agency also earlier represented many of the other castaways from “Gilligan’s Island,” including Bob Denver (Gilligan), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), Tina Louise (Ginger) and Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell).

“He and his wife Constance, they are just the nicest people,” Eisenstadt said. I always felt that they actually talked to each other like newlyweds. It was very nice.”

Johnson was genuine, and quick to call with a simple “thank you.”

“There are actors who have been around a long time; you have different types,” he said. “Russell was just always very appreciative. He made me feel like there was a real mutual respect there.”

Johnson was born Nov. 10, 1924, the oldest of six children in a farming family in Ashely, Pa. His father died when he was just 9, and he was sent with two brothers to a school for orphans in Philadelphia, Pa.

After high school, he enlisted in the Army and was a bombardier in a B-25 bomber and flew 44 combat missions over the East Indies and the Philippines.

During one mission in March 1945 in the Philippine Islands, his B-24 Liberator bomber was shot down and he was subsequently awarded the Purple Heart.

After the war, he used the GI Bill to pay for his studies at the Actors’ Laboratory in Hollywood, and he picked up his first movie role in 1952 in “For Men Only,” where he played the villain Kyle Walker, the leader of a fraternity where a student had died from hazing.

That same year, he appeared in “Loan Shark” with George Raft.

Many other villain roles followed, mostly in Westerns. He also starred in many of the era’s biggest sci-fi flicks, including “It Came from Outer Space” (1953), “This Island Earth” (1955) and “Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1956).

Johnson also picked up many parts in television shows, including “The Adventures of Superman” and two episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”

It would be his portrayal of the cool brainiac in “Gilligan’s Island,” however, that would bring him lasting fame as a marooned MacGyver of sorts who could build anything from a lie detector to a sewing machine out of bamboo, coconuts and whatever else could be scrounged from the uncharted desert isle.

“It was funny, it was timeless,” said Eisenstadt, his agent. “The characters were so diverse. I think everybody could relate to one of the characters on the show.”

“It was an innocent time in TV,” he added. “It was just very simple entertainment. Just watch and enjoy.”

The actor’s wife, Connie, said she has been overwhelmed by the response to his death.

“I feel the love for him coming out; everywhere, I feel it,” she said.

“I feel the love and right now, it’s sustaining me.”

“There’s a village in Darfur doing dances and celebrating his life. My goodness, that blows my mind. It’s just so sweet,” she said.

The Johnsons moved to Bainbridge in the late 1980s. Connie Johnson said they had dear friends living in Seattle.

“Someone said to check out Bainbridge, which I did. I knew that coming over on the ferry, at the end of 1988, that I wanted to live here,” she said.

Over the years, Johnson was Bainbridge’s best-known resident and it was a source of local pride that he called the island home.

She said her husband didn’t mind the attention, as well as the live-and-let-live vibe of Bainbridge.

“People were very subtle with him and very kind,” she said.

He was an avid reader, and loved to drive, Connie Johnson recalled, so much so that he gave up his pain pills in recent years so he could continue to motor about the island.

He didn’t mind fans, and would often share stories with folks who were intrigued by his stories of Hollywood, television and the movies.

Her husband played everything from Superman to Shakespeare.

She recalled the words that the director of one of his “Twilight Zone” episodes had given him.

“He said, ‘You know, Russell, I think you could be a huge movie star but I don’t think it’s going to happen.’”

When her husband asked why, he got a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘You don’t act like a star.’ And Russell said, ‘So be it.’”

“He was a star,” she added. “He was his own star.”

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