Russell Johnson was born in Pennsylvania in 1924. He had six siblings. His father died from pneumonia when Russ was only 8, and his youngest brother died the following year. He was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys located in Philadelphia. He struggled early in his education, being held back for a year. In high school he made the National Honor Society.
In 1943, he married Edith Cahoon. They would divorce in 1948.
During World War II, Johnson joined the Army Air Corps and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down in the Philippines in 1945. Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater. Once the war was over, Russ used his GI Bill to enroll in the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood to study acting. While there he met Kay Cousins, and they married in 1949 and were married until her death in 1980.
Johnson’s big-screen career began in 1952. He was a friend of Audie Murphy and would appear in three of his films in the early 1950s. He was in a variety of movies throughout the 1950s, mainly westerns and sci fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space.
Russell began receiving roles on television in 1950. In the 1950s he would be seen on 28 different shows. In 1959 he was offered a role in a western, Black Saddle. Johnson was Marshal Gib Scott. The show was on for one season.
During the 1960s, Russell’s television work increased, and he appeared on 39 series including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Ben Casey, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, Outer Limits, and Big Valley. In 1964 he was offered the role of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, replacing John Gabriel who was a teacher in the pilot. Roy Hinkley was a genius who made complex inventions from the simple materials he found on the island. As we have learned, most of the cast of Gilligan’s Island was typecast after the show was cancelled, and they had a hard time getting other roles. Johnson discussed this circumstance in a later interview: “It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor . . . but as the years have gone by, I’ve given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. . . Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun. It’s brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”
Although he had trouble at first, he did go on to appear in 45 different shows from 1970-1997, including That Girl, Marcus Welby, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Lou Grant, Bosom Buddies, Dallas, Fame, Newhart, ALF, and Roseanne. He had a recurring role on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from 1971-1973.
In 1982, Russell married for a third time. He married Connie Dane, and they were married until his death from kidney failure in 2014.
In 1993, he published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle.
Like so many of the tv icons in the 1960s—Barbara Eden, Adam West, Butch Patrick, David Cassidy, Maureen McCormick—Russell struggled with his alter ego, eventually accepting his role as the Professor. While being tied to one character for 50 years makes it tough to get the roles you want, it’s hard to be critical of a personality that gives such pleasure to decades of viewers and makes you a household name for half a century. Being given the chance to portray a character that America loves is a hazard of the business but is certainly better than never receiving a starring role.
You Never Know Who Might Show Up
With a show like Gilligan’s Island, you would assume it would be almost impossible to have guest stars. After all, they are on a deserted island. Except for the native people who might be living there, where would stars come from? Amazingly, Gilligan’s Island featured many guest stars over the years. Let’s look at a few of them.
Vito Scotti appeared on four different episodes playing Dr. Boris Balinkoff, mad scientist, twice, a Japanese sailor, and a Japanese soldier who does not believe World War II is over.
Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.
Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.
Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.
Richard Kiel, a Russian agent, pretended to be a ghost to scare the castaways off the island so he could have the oil rights. When the cast turns the tables and acts like ghosts, he didn’t stick around long.
Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.
Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.
John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.
Don Rickles is con man Norbert Wiley who is hiding out on the island. He kidnaps Mrs. Howell and later Ginger, planning on getting ransom for each castaway. After the Professor puts him in jail, Ginger convinces them to let him out for a party. Norbert steals jewelry and other items from the castaways and leaves the island.
Phil Silvers crashes onto the island as Herbert Hecuba, arrogant movie producer. He orders everyone around like they’re his servants. He is not impressed with Ginger’s acting ability, so the castaways write and perform a play to show off her talents. In the middle of the night, Hecuba takes off with their play, claiming it as his own back in the US.
Sterling Holloway is an escapee from a prison and the owner of a pigeon. The Professor thinks he can get a message back to the States through the pigeon, but when Birdy finds out he is paroled, he sends the bird off first.
A variety of actors played natives on the show. In all, there were 54 guest stars given credit on the show.
In addition, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, and Jim Backus all had guest starring roles playing people who were look-alikes for Gilligan, Ginger, and Mr. Howell.
I guess it’s a good lesson to always keep up appearances because you never know who might show up when you’re stranded on an island.