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Gilligan's 'The Professor' Has Died; Russell Johnson Was 89

Actor Russell Johnson, the Professor on <em>Gilligan's Island,</em> has died at age 89. He's seen here at far left seated next to Bob Denver, along with fellow cast members from left, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Jr., and Dawn Wells.
CBS /Landov
Actor Russell Johnson, the Professor on Gilligan's Island, has died at age 89. He's seen here at far left seated next to Bob Denver, along with fellow cast members from left, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Jr., and Dawn Wells.

Russell Johnson, the actor whose job it was to be the voice of reason and calm on an island of shipwrecked ninnies, has died at age 89, according to reports. Johnson's role as the Professor on the 1960s comedy Gilligan's Island endeared him to audiences who watched him build radios and generators from things like coconuts and palm branches.

Johnson reportedly died of natural causes today at his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

His role on Gilligan's Island defined Johnson's career. But as E!Online reports, the man behind the Professor was, as you might expect, always industrious:

"The Pennsylvania-born actor worked regularly in TV and films for more than 40 years, appearing on the likes of The Twilight Zone, Lassie, The Lone Ranger and The Jeffersons. He was also on the big screen in the cult sci-fi classic It Came From Outer Space and in a number of Westerns, including The Stand at Apache River and Tumbleweed."

E!Online also notes that Johnson was the last living male who had a central role on Gilligan's Island. And it calls him "the single-and-unconcerned heartthrob of the bunch."

The show featuring seven castaways on an uncharted desert isle — Gilligan; the Skipper; Thurston and "Lovey" Howell; Ginger; The Professor and Mary Ann — ran from 1963-1967, producing nearly 100 episodes.

Those episodes have played endlessly in reruns and were embraced by countless young viewers over several decades, drawn in by the show's simple charm and penchant for implausible and funny storylines.

For years, the show's core cast members were sought out by devoted fans — they've been mourning Johnson and the Professor on a dedicated Facebook page today. And because the man was sometimes overlooked, we'll include the character's full name here: Dr. Roy Hinkley, holder of six degrees.

And yet somehow, as many people have remarked, the Professor, with all that ingenuity and smarts, for years was not able to patch the S.S. Minnow, the boat that had crashed on the island.

As the film noir website Shadows and Satin reported last year, Johnson's life experiences were far wider than some viewers might realize. He appeared in films with George Raft and Audie Murphy, for instance. And then there were his early years, as the site tells us:

"Johnson was born in Ashley, Pennsylvania, one of seven children. When he was eight years old, his father died and Johnson was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for low-income orphans. After his graduation, he joined the Army and he earned a Purple Heart during World War II; his plane was shot down in the Philippines and he broke his ankles crash landing on the island of Mindanao."

Johnson is survived by his wife, Constance Dane, and daughter, Kim Johnson, from an earlier marriage. His son, David, was an AIDS activist who died of the disease in the 1990s. For years, Johnson worked as a volunteer helping to raise money for AIDS research.

Further suggesting that the good-guy image he projected on Gilligan's Island wasn't just an act, here's what Johnson tells fans on his website, :

"I think, what I love most at this point in time in the long life of Gilligan's Island is the positive, intelligent nature of long time Gilligan aficionados. It amazes me.

"I have received mail throughout the years from young viewers from all over the world, year after year, who were so influenced by the Professor's smarts that they became science buffs and are now Real Professors, Doctors and Scientists. It makes me proud . . .

"Believe it or not the cast of Gilligan babysat some of you, many a time in your lives. The little boys and girls that we, the cast, baby sat are now serving our country, putting their lives on the line for us everyday of their young lives.

"Makes me proud of you . . .

"Now, many of you with children watch Gilligan along with them. You laugh together. All of it fills my wife Constance and me with major affection for you.

"I am delighted to be a part of all your lives."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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