Family, friends bid bon voyage to island’s cherished Professor

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

Doting and devoted father, war hero, selfless friend and neighbor: The man known and loved around the globe as the Professor was remembered last week for much more than his iconic role in one of television’s most popular comedies ever.

A large crowd of family and friends gathered at the Kiana Lodge in Poulsbo on Saturday, Feb. 15 to pay loving tribute to Russell David Johnson, the actor who shot to fame as one of seven castaways on the hit sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” Johnson, a Bainbridge Island resident, passed away on Jan. 16 at the age of 89.

At his memorial celebration, Johnson was fondly remembered for his role in the 1960s television show that left him forever typecast as the shipwrecked scientist who could make a helium balloon out of raincoats or a pedal-powered sewing machine from bamboo, but couldn’t fix a boat to save the stranded seven.

Frank Buxton, his longtime friend and fellow actor, recalled the gentle man, and gentleman, and said what many were thinking.

“The professor has left the island,” Buxton said, his voice nearly breaking.

Buxton said Johnson accepted his fame as the Professor as both a blessing and a curse. He recalled the story Johnson often told about being recognized after going to pick up a take-out order from a Chinese restaurant.

“The proprietor looked at him and said, ‘I know you. You were Professor.”

“Russell said yes, and the proprietor said, ‘Boy, you old!’”

A hesitant castaway

Johnson reluctantly took on the Professor role at a critical point in his career, after movie roles in science fiction films now considered classics, including “This Island Earth,” “It Came from Outer Space,” and “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” the last from B-movie genius Roger Corman, and appearances on such television shows as “The Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits,” “Gunsmoke” and “Black Saddle,” where he played U.S. Marshal Gib Scott.

Johnson played the Professor in 98 episodes of “Gilligan’s Island,” and famously was left out of the opening theme song and credits with fellow castaway Dawn Wells, who played the farm girl from Kansas, Mary Ann.

At last weekend’s memorial service, she fondly recalled “my Professor.”

“It’s really hard to be sad when you sit back and think of the things that you did together, and the wit and the humor that he had,” Wells said.

“His intellect, his sensitivity, his honesty, his respect, his confidence, his sensibility, his talent, his incredible sense of humor and wit captured not only my heart but millions of fans worldwide,” she said.

Wells also remembered how both their characters were left out of the show’s signature theme song, which mentioned each castaway except Mary Ann and the Professor, and simply ended with “and the rest.” (The slight was corrected by the start of the second season, when another singing group was hired to rerecord the theme song that added both characters and finally put the pair in the series’ life ring credit roll.

“We were ‘the rest,’” Wells recalled.

“Russell and I were the last two to get billing,” she said. “It formed a great bond between us. We used to send each other cards, ‘Love, the rest.’”

“I’m going to miss his twinkle, his gentle way,” Wells said. “We were the rest, but you were the best. May God welcome you with open arms and a smile, and a rowboat.”

“Gilligan’s Island,” which premiered in September 1964, was a ratings hit but savaged by critics. One reviewer for a San Francisco paper called it “the stinkeroo of all time.” Some top-level executives at CBS hated it, too.

The viewing public thought otherwise, however.

Larry Albert, who worked with Johnson on Jim French radio shows that included “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” recalled first seeing “Gilligan’s Island” while he was serving in Vietnam.

“And we didn’t think it was so stupid. In Vietnam, we thought it was hysterical and it lightened our day a lot,” Albert said.

A gentle man

Many recalled Johnson’s warmth, humility and generous nature.

Buxton recalled the actor’s daily trips to the post office to send return letters and autographed pictures to fans.

“There was no pretense about the man at all. He was a big star. And yet ... he was as gracious as gracious could be.”

Teri Waag from Town & Country Market listed the words that Johnson brought to mind from the folks who met him each week in the aisles or the checkout lines of the Winslow grocery. Genuine, humble, compassionate. Funny, unassuming, kind and generous.

“Predictable,” Waag added, relaying the one-word description from Jeremy in the wine department, “who said, the next sentence was, ‘McManis merlot.’”

“He brought joy to everyone’s heart,” she said, and added that the last time she waited on Johnson in the checkout line, the girl helping bag his groceries asked him once again, “Can I take you out?”

“He said, ‘Not yet!’ and grinned,” Waag laughed.

Kimberly Johnson recalled the time even she asked for her famous father’s autograph. It began with an apology.

“Dear dad, I have a confession to make and I thought that now would be a really good time,” she said, prompting much laughter from the gathered crowed.

She asked him to remember that really mean teacher she had in third grade, the “just so horrible” one who was just so terrible she would pin notes on her sweater.

Back then, in the ’60s, kids who got failing grades had to take their mimeographed tests home, with a signature line on the bottom for a parent.

She tore off the bottom of the test and handed it her father.

“Dad, my girlfriend, uh, Cindy, wants your autograph,” she recalled.

The quizzical look she got in return prompted an off-the-cuff explanation.

“I said, ‘I don’t have her autograph book so she likes to take little pieces of paper and paste them into her autograph book,’” she told him.

Her father never said another word about it, she recalled. Maybe he knew what was going on. Maybe there was another explanation.

“I flew under the radar for that whole thing for my whole life.”

“I never told you this story. I know how you are, and I thought, well, maybe you would feel bad that you were duped by a third-grader,” his daughter said.

A life lived well

Reminders of a full life, one that reached a “ripe old age,” in his friend Buxton’s words, were displayed at both ends of the lodge.

In front, a large photo of the actor as U.S. Marshal Scott, set next to a tri-folded U.S. flag.

In back, a poster from “Attack of the Crab Monsters”; a lobby card with Johnson next to Ronald Reagan in the movie “Law and Order”; family pictures in Kodacolors; the large, red-framed photo of the cast of “Gilligan’s Island” that was presented to each of the seven castaways; and a call sheet from April 27, 1963 for the film “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” with Johnson’s name (he was the second Pharisee) listed among the likes of Shelly Winters, Roddy McDowell and Max von Sydow.

Nearby, a display from his service as a bombardier on a B-25 in World War II; his dog tags, his Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, Philippine Liberation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War ribbon, his silver first lieutenant bars, and his Purple Heart.

The Purple Heart came after his 44th combat mission, his last, when he was shot down during a strafing and skip-bombing run over enemy positions in Zamboanga, the Philippines on a March morning in 1945.

His B-25 crash-landed after the Japanese shot out the plane’s engines, then made a direct hit on the aircraft as it was going down. Shrapnel tore through the bomber, breaking both of Johnson’s ankles and killing the radio operator sitting next to him.

As soon as he left the military, he used the G.I. Bill for acting classes at the Actors Lab in Hollywood.

Life on another island

The actor and his wife, Connie, moved to Bainbridge Island in the late 1980s.

Tom Haggar, his doctor, neighbor and friend, said he never knew the Professor, as he didn’t have much time for television when he was in college during the ’60s.

Russell Johnson, now, that was a friend indeed.

Haggar said their wives were fond of the movies, but the husbands would get a night off when they begged off going to see the latest chick flick or romantic comedy to watch boxing on TV instead.

Haggar recalled one such movie night, when his neighbor invited him over for dinner and the fights on the tube.

When he arrived, Johnson asked if he liked hot dogs.

“Love ’em,” came the response.

Haggar remembered that they walked into the kitchen and Johnson pulled the much anticipated fix-ins for their dinner out of the refrigerator.

“Two wieners.”

Haggar recalled in hilarious detail how Johnson carefully removed the hot dogs from their white butcher-paper wrapping, placed one gently in the microwave, and studiously examined the controls before entering 47 seconds and hitting the “cook” button.

“Forty-seven seconds later - ding! - takes out the wiener, puts it in a bun, ‘You want mustard?’ ‘Yes, I do,’ picks up a pickle, lays it on the plate and says, ‘Here’s your dinner.’

“‘Don’t wait for me, they’re better when they’re hot,’” the actor added.

Then his host carefully took the other hot dog, his last wiener, placed it on a plate and repeated his meticulous preparations.

After the microwave started, Johnson turned to his guest. But behind his back, something started to go horribly wrong.

“Just a few seconds later, I hear a buzzing sound, I smell something like electrical ozone ... I see little puffs of smoke rising behind Russell,” Haggar recalled.

The lights in the kitchen began to flicker, and Haggar got nervous. He peered past Johnson at the microwave to see flames inside the oven.

“I kid you not: Flames dripping with blazing balls of lava dripping down the face of the oven.”

He reached past Johnson, behind the microwave, to find the power cord but came up empty. He then noticed the wooden cupboard filled with cookbooks just above.

“I’m seriously a little nervous here,” Haggar recounted.

Johnson then leaned in, found the cord and pulled it out.

“The microwave continues to drip molten lava, so I grabbed the microwave, go around the counter, through the sliding door, out onto the concrete patio a safe distance from the house; I put it down and go back inside.”

There, Johnson tells him how he bought the microwave 20 years earlier at Sears and how it’s been a great microwave ever since.

“Whew,” his guest says, picking up the leftover half of his hot dog.

“Tom, where’s my hot dog?” his host asks.

“I said, ‘I think it’s out on the patio.’ So Russell says, ‘Would you please go get it?’”

“I went out thinking this is a waste of time. And I’m also thinking, when I get back in, the last half of my hot dog is going to be gone.’”

Haggar opened the microwave, still warm to the touch, and a last puff of smoke escaped.

“I look in; I can’t believe my eyes. The floor of this microwave, is molten, charred — ash and plastic around the periphery. In the center, a perfectly cooked, golden brown hot dog just starting to split. I’m amazed. I pick it up, take it in, give it to Russell. He looks at it; there’s no black spots on this hot dog. Puts it in a bun, mustard, takes a bite.

“Then he gave me that Russell look, where he leans forward and has got this twinkle in his eye, and a little smile, and he says, ‘It’s a little smokey. But it’s just the way I like ‘em. Let’s go watch boxing.’ So we did.”

Haggar said there must have been somebody always watching over his friend. During the war, and later, escaping his castaway status.

“When that tidal wave and that typhoon came along and swept him off that island in the ’70s and he was saved, someone was looking over him.

“And when that hot dog, in that inferno in that microwave ... someone’s looking over Russell’s shoulder and taking care of him,” Haggar said.

“And so Russell, I just want to say, may all your landings be smooth, may you never get lost, and may all your hot dogs be a little bit smokey.”

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