It’s The Professor and a Whole Lot of Other People: Russell Johnson and Guest Stars

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.

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Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.

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Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.

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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.

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Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.

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Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.

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John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mary Ann vs Ginger: Dawn Wells and Tina Louise

While all the girls loved David Cassidy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, guys had a harder choice.  They were always asked to choose between Jeannie and Samantha and Mary Ann vs. Ginger. Ginger and Mary Ann didn’t seem to have much in common.  Unfortunately, that was also true of Dawn Wells and Tina Louise. Let’s look at their careers and their time as cast members on Gilligan’s Island.

Dawn Wells

Dawn Wells was born in October of 1938 in Reno, Nevada. Her father was a real estate developer and she seemed to have a happy childhood, gardening and horseback riding. Her parents divorced when she was young, but they shared custody. She was bright, an honor roll student. She was also on the debate team and her class treasurer. She won Miss Nevada. Originally, she wanted to be a doctor or a dancer, but bad knees reduced her choices and then she took drama at Stephens College. She was bit by the acting bug and transferred to the University of Washington, earning her degree in theatre.

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After school, Dawn moved to Hollywood and began working in both theater and movies. Her first film was Palm Springs Weekend in 1963. In the early 1960s, she appeared in about 20 shows, many of them westerns.

In 1964 she was offered the role of Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island. She enjoyed her time with the show. In a September 27, 2014 LA Times article by Susan King, she said, “Bob Denver, who played the bumblingly sweet Gilligan, was a comic genius. Alan Hale Jr., who embodied the teddy bearish Skipper, was a wonderful man. I never saw him angry.” She also adored Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. Russell Johnson wrote the foreword for one of her books. The only member of the cast she hasn’t had contact with was Tina Louise.

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In the original Gilligan’s Island theme song, Mary Ann and the Professor were not mentioned. They were referred to as “the rest” and then later the lyrics became “the Professor and Mary Ann.” Wells has mentioned in several articles that Bob Denver was the one that got the change made.

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Wells embraces her character and people respond in a positive way. People who grew up watching the show see her as friendly and unassuming. Like Barbara Eden and others who suffered from typecasting, she sees her time as Mary Ann in a positive view: “Mary Ann has been such a big part of my life, it’s really impossible to get away from it. But why would I want to? Everywhere in the world that I go, I am greeted with love. . . I created a character that meant something to some people and it has lasted.”

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However, Wells admits that most of the cast suffered from stereotyped views of their roles on the show. She worked hard to continue acting, performing in more than 66 theatrical productions, as well as countless voice-overs and commercials.

She had married Larry Rosen in 1962, but they divorced the same year her role as Mary Ann ended.

After the demise of Gilligan, she received other roles, appearing in 24 shows from 1967-2018, but in many of them she played Mary Ann, not a character like Mary Ann, but the actual Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.

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In 1998, she opened the Dawn Wells Film Actors Boot Camp in Idaho. She also designed a line of clothing for physically challenged people, “Wishing Wells Collections” and launched a beauty line, “Classic Beauty.” She also wrote two books, a cookbook from the show and A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?

Dawn Wells has taken her role of Mary Ann and let it be part of her without limiting herself. She willingly accepts the character as part of herself, but she has continued to grow and expand her career. I think when Mary Ann was rescued from the island, she probably had a very similar career.

Tina Louise

Tina Louise was born in New York City in 1934. Like Wells, her parents also divorced when she was quite young. She first appeared on Broadway in “Li’l Abner” while a teenager. She was given good reviews and was offered a role in her first movie, God’s Little Acre in 1958. She then began studying with Lee Strasberg.

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During this time, she made one album, “It’s Time for Tina,” a collection of classics from composers such as George Gershwin, Jule Styne and Cole Porter.

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After making several movies, she returned to Broadway, starring with Carol Burnett in “Fade In, Fade Out.” Like Dawn Wells, Louise accepted a number of roles on television in the early 1960s, also many westerns.

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Tina left the Broadway show to take the part of Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island.  Surprisingly, she was not the first choice and replaced Kit Smythe who was cast in the pilot. Unlike Wells, she did not appear to enjoy her time with the show. Many articles have been written about her dissatisfaction with the fact that she thought she would be the star of the show instead of one of seven more equal cast members. The other cast members describe her as professional but unhappy. She distanced herself from the show as soon as it ended, not participating in future projects.

Also, like Wells, Tina married but divorced after five years.

Louise made quite a few movies after her time on Gilligan and continued to work in television, appearing on 27 different series including Bonanza, Love American Style, Kojak, Marcus Welby, and The Love Boat.

Again, like Dawn Wells, Tina Louise has expanded her acting career into other venues. In 2005 she got a lot of money for 80 lines of voice-over work for a gaming machine, MegaJackpots which were located in casinos across the country.

She also penned three books so far, Sunday: A Memoir in 1997 and two childrens’ books, When I Grow Up in 2007 and What Does a Bee Do? in 2009. She has also spent time volunteering in literacy projects and providing tutoring for school children.

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Louise has also discovered a love of abstract painting and has exhibited her work around New York, recently at the Patterson Museum of Art.

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Unlike Dawn Wells, Tina Louise did not embody her character of Ginger but has instead refused to be associated with the show and her role. Both actresses went on to forge new careers for themselves and became successful in various fields. It’s too bad that they are the only remaining crew members left from the show and do not get along. As you can see from comparing their lives, they do have quite a bit in common, and their acting journeys have been similar. They have said they do not dislike each other; they just never formed a deep friendship.

How Much Luggage Do You Need for a Three-Hour Trip? The Story of Gilligan’s Island

Today we begin a month-long look at Gilligan’s Island.  I admit I was never a big Gilligan fan, but there are so many dedicated viewers that I decided it was time to take a closer look.  Today we look at the series, and in the following weeks, we’ll look at the actors who appeared in the cast.

Gilligan's Island (US TV Series)

Gilligan’s Island was created by one of my favorite producers, Sherwood Schwartz. It aired from September 1964 till April of 1967, producing 98 episodes and a ton of other versions of the show which aired as new series or television movies, including the hard-to-believe Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, Alan Hale, Jr., Bob Denver, Curly Neal, 1981. (c) Uni

The premise of the show was that on a three-hour tour, the SS Minnow became shipwrecked on a deserted island after a typhoon. Seven castaways now must make the island their home as they wait to be rescued. We have the captain of the ship, the Skipper (Alan Hale), his first-mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife Lovie (Natalie Schafer), movie star Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), the girl next door Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), and the Professor (Russell Johnson). All they have is a transistor radio and whatever they had on the ship.

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CBS gave the okay for Schwarz to film the pilot. Schwartz wanted Jerry Van Dyke for Gilligan, but Van Dyke said it was “the worst thing” he ever read. He turned down the script and accepted the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car.

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The pilot was titled “Marooned.” Seven characters were in the pilot, but only the Skipper, Gilligan and the Howells were going to be in the ongoing series. These were the only castaways mentioned in the pilot theme song. The final day of filming for the pilot was November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The staff was crowded around a radio between scenes trying to get the updated news. In the opening of the episodes in the first season, as the Minnow leaves the harbor, you can see an American flag flying at half staff as a tribute to Kennedy.

After seeing the pilot, several changes were requested. The first change was to the theme song. Originally it was written by the talented John Williams and sung by Schwartz and was a Calypso-sounding song. The lyrics were quite different from the song we recognize today. The background music and laugh track were the same for both the pilot and the ensuing shows. The three characters who were not part of the series at first were the same characters that later appeared . . . sort of. The Professor was a high school teacher played by John Gabriel, Ginger was an actress but also a secretary played by Kit Smythe, and Mary Ann was Bunny, a dumb blonde stereotype played by Nancy McCarthy.

Because so many changes happened between the pilot and the first episode, the pilot was not aired until 1992 when it was broadcast on TBS.

The first season was filmed in black and white but later colorized for syndication The second and third seasons were filmed in color.

While the pilot had been filmed in Hawaii,  the show was taped at a lagoon built at the CBS Radford Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles. The film was supposed to be shot in Malibu, but it was too foggy. The Ventura Freeway was nearby and when traffic was too loud, production had to halt. The lagoon would become a parking lot in 1995.

There were four boats that “played” the part of the SS Minnow. One was used in the opening credits which had been rented in Honolulu for the filming of the pilot. One was used in the opening credits for the final two years. One was shown in beach scenes and the fourth was built at the studio.

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The eventual theme song was called “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” and was written by Schwartz and George Wyle. There were two versions, one for the first season which referred to Mary Ann and the Professor as “the rest,” and another version for the last two seasons which specified “The Professor and Mary Ann.” Dawn Wells credits Bob Denver for going to bat for her and Johnson threatening to take his name out of the song if they were not added.

For the opening credits, the song was:

Just sit right back

And you’ll hear a tale

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a mighty sailing man

The skipper brave and sure

Five passengers set sail that day

For a 3-hour tour, a 3-hour tour

The weather started getting rough

The tiny ship was tossed

If not for the courage of the fearless crew

The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost

The ship set ground on the shore of this

Uncharted desert isle

With Gilligaaan

The Skipper too

A millionaire, and his wife

A movie star

The Proffessor and Mary Ann

Here on Gilligan’s Isle

 

For closing credits, the lyrics were:

So, this is the tale of our castaways

They’re here for a long long time

They’ll have to make the best of things

It’s an uphill climb

The first mate and his skipper too

Will do their very best

To make the others comfortable

In the tropic island nest

No phone, no lights, no motor cars

Not a single luxury

Like Robinson Crusoe

It’s primitive as can be

So, join us here each week my friends

You’ll sure to get a smile

From 7 stranded castaways

Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

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Most of the episodes can be categorized into five themes. (1) One of the castaways make some useful object from local material. These could be anything from their bamboo huts to hot water pipes to a stethoscope to a pedal-powered car. They just could not produce anything that could get them off the island! (2) Visitors would often appear on the island. We’ll learn about some of the guest stars on the show in our last monthly blog. None of these visitors ever help the characters get rescued. Unbelievably, Ginger, Gilligan, and Mr. Howell all had look-alikes end up on the island, causing trouble for them. (3) Dreams occur a lot. When we see them, all the characters are part of the dream.  Apparently, the hot weather made them sleepy. (4) News from the outside world, usually heard on the radio, caused trouble on the island. (5) Strange objects showed up on the island from time to time like a WWII mine or radioactive vegetable seeds.

Despite many corny scripts and imagination-stretching storylines, the show received solid ratings all three years. When it went into syndication, it grew in popularity. Many of the stars from Gilligan play their characters from the show in other series’ television episodes in the 1970s and 1980s.

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The last episode was called “Gilligan the Goddess.” Unfortunately, the castaways were not rescued. A fourth season was expected or perhaps Schwartz would have saved them. In season three, the show was on Monday nights competing with The Monkees.  Schwartz was assured it would be back because it had higher ratings than The Monkees. Gunsmoke, which aired Saturday nights, was given the potential ax. However, CBS president William Paley pressured the executives who then moved Gunsmoke to Monday night and cancelled Gilligan’s Island.

One funny fact I read about was how often the US Coast Guard received telegrams from citizens who were pleading for them to make an effort to rescue the cast from Gilligan’s Island. The Coast Guard sent these telegrams to Schwartz.

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I can’t say that after learning more about the show, it made my favorites list, but there are definitely worse shows on television than Gilligan’s Island. If it was one of your favorites, you’ll enjoy hearing about the stars who played the castaways. I certainly learned they were just as interesting a group of people in real life as they were on the isle they called home for three years.