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Russell Johnson, 89; professor on ‘Gilligan’s Island’

Russell Johnson (right) and the cast of “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island” (1978), with Judith Baldwin, Jim Backus, Bob Denver, Natalie Schafer, Dawn Wells, and Alan Hale Jr.
Russell Johnson (right) and the cast of “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island” (1978), with Judith Baldwin, Jim Backus, Bob Denver, Natalie Schafer, Dawn Wells, and Alan Hale Jr.Associated Press

NEW YORK — Russell Johnson — an actor who made a living by mostly playing villains in westerns until he was cast as the Professor, the brains of a bunch of sweetly clueless, self-involved, hopelessly naïve island castaways, on the hit sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” — died Thursday at his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

He was 89.

His agent, Michael Eisenstadt, confirmed the death.

“Gilligan’s Island,” which was seen on CBS from 1964 to 1967 and still lives on in reruns, starred Bob Denver as Gilligan, the witless first mate of the S.S. Minnow, a small touring boat that runs aground on an uncharted island after a storm.

Besides Gilligan and the Professor, five others were on board: the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.); Ginger, a seductive actress (Tina Louise); the snobbish wealthy couple Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife, known as Lovey (Natalie Schafer); and Mary Ann, a girl-next-door type (Dawn Wells).

In the show’s first season, Mr. Johnson and Wells were left out of the opening credits, and their characters were ignored in the theme song, which named the other castaways but dismissed the two of them with the phrase “and the rest.” The snub was rectified for the second season, at the same time the show went from black-and-white to color.

The Professor was a good-looking but nerdy academic, an exaggerated stereotype of the man of capacious intelligence with little or no social awareness.

Occasionally approached romantically by Ginger (and guest stars, including Zsa Zsa Gabor), he remained chaste and unaffected.

But he was pretty much the only character on the show who possessed anything resembling actual knowledge, and he was forever inventing methods to increase the castaways’ chance of rescue. Still, among the show’s many lapses of logic was the fact — often noted by Mr. Johnson in interviews — that although the Professor could build a shortwave radio out of a coconut shell, he could not figure out how to patch a hole in a boat hull.

Avid fans — very avid — are probably the only ones to remember that the character’s name was actually Dr. Roy Hinkley or that his academic resume was explicitly spelled out.

“Professor, what exactly are your degrees?” Howell asked once.

“Well,” the Professor replied, “I have a BA from USC, a BS from UCLA, an MA from SMU, and a PhD from TCU.”

Howell clucked in return: “Well, I don’t know much about your education, but it sounds like a marvelous recipe for alphabet soup.”

Russell David Johnson was born near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the oldest of six children.

His father died when Russell was not yet 10, and his mother sent him and two brothers to Girard College, then a school for poor orphan boys in Philadelphia, where he finished high school.

He served in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, and after his discharge studied on the GI Bill at the Actors’ Laboratory in Hollywood.

His first film role was in a 1952 drama about fraternity hazing, “For Men Only,” in which he played a sadistic fraternity leader.

That led to a contract with Universal-International, which led to roles in a series of movies, mostly westerns (including “Law and Order,” in which he played Ronald Reagan’s no-good brother) and science fiction films, including “It Came From Outer Space.”

Later in the decade he began appearing frequently on television, often in western shows in the role of the black hat, even though he was a poor horseman. (When he played a marshal in the series “Black Saddle,” he suggested to the producer — “semiseriously,” he said in an interview in 2004 — that the character be seen walking his horse into town and that he chase down the bad guys on foot.)

He also appeared in two episodes of “The Twilight Zone” involving time travel. In one, he tries to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; in the other, about a time machine that accidentally rescues a 19th-century murderer from a hanging, he plays the inventor, a professor.

Mr. Johnson leaves his wife, Connie; a daughter, Kim; a stepson, Court Dane; and a grandson.

Louise and Wells are the only surviving “Gilligan’s Island” cast members.

After “Gilligan’s Island,” Mr. Johnson made a career guest-starring in television series, including the dramas “Mannix,” “Cannon,” and “Lou Grant,” and the comedies “Bosom Buddies” and “The Jeffersons,” usually as an upright character with smarts.

He also reprised the Professor role in the 1970s and 1980s in the cartoon series “The New Adventures of Gilligan” and “Gilligan’s Planet” and in three made-for-television “Gilligan” movies.

“‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Wagon Train,’ ‘The Dakotas,’ you name a western, I did it,” he said of his career before “Gilligan.” He added: “I was always the bad guy in westerns. I played more bad guys than you can shake a stick at until I played the Professor. Then I couldn’t get a job being a bad guy.”