The death of his father when he was eight years old and his placement in a boarding school for disadvantaged boys changed future character actor Russell Johnson from an aimless Pennsylvania youth to a purpose-driven young adult. Following his decorated military service during World War II, Johnson studied acting in Hollywood on the GI Bill, winning a contract with Universal Studios. After a decade of work on stage and television and in such features as "It Came From Outer Space" (1953) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), Johnson signed on for the CBS sitcom "Gilligan's Island" (1964-67) with little ambition beyond supporting his family; the unparalleled success of the series in both its three-year run and in syndication made a pop culture figurehead of Johnson's "The Professor," whose indefatigable gadget-making was a low tech tonic for the high anxiety of the Cold War. Yet instant recognition came at a price for Johnson, who found himself adrift after the cancellation of his series in 1967, struggling to reestablish himself as a dramatic actor even as he was enshrined for playing one of the most beloved television characters of all time. Inevitably, his obituaries following his 2014 death led with his most iconic role.
Born on Nov. 10, 1924 in the East Pennsylvania coal mining hub of Ashley, Russell David Johnson was the oldest of seven children. After the pneumonia-related death of his father, Russell Kennedy Johnson, nine year-old "Johnny" Johnson and his two brothers were placed by their widowed mother Marian in Philadelphia's Girard College, a boarding school for boys from disadvantaged families. Initially a lackluster student, Johnson excelled in his studies at Girard and graduated on the National Honor Roll. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. During World War II, Johnson flew over 40 missions in Europe, the East Indies and Southeast Asia. He was discharged from the army in 1944 to accept an officer's commission from the newly-formed U.S. Air Force. Among his many military honors was the Purple Heart, which he received after surviving the crash of his B-24 bomber on the island of Mindanao in March 1945. Johnson remained an inactive officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve until 1957.
While in high school, Johnson had seen a Philadelphia production of the Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse stage play, "Life with Father," starring Louis Calhern; the experience inspired Johnson to be an actor and so he began to participate in campus productions during his senior year. Married during the war to a Hollywood native, Johnson followed his wife to Los Angeles, where he studied acting at the Group Theatre-founded Actor's Lab under the GI Bill. Supplementing his income as a cab driver and assembly line worker, Johnson attended acting classes alongside other ex-soldiers and contract players from Universal and 20th Century Fox Studios. Spotted in classes by character actor-turned-director Paul Henreid, Johnson made his film debut in Henreid's fact-based campus whodunit "For Men Only" (1952), as a villainous college student who causes the death of an underclassman during fraternity hazing. Paid $250 a week for five weeks of work, Johnson also received an offer of a contract with Universal-International, which put him in the hopeful company of such up-and-coming young actors as Dennis Weaver, Guy Williams and Hugh O'Brian.
Although Johnson acted in a variety of films early in his career, including westerns, combat films and crime dramas, his most enduring work during this time was in two science fiction films later considered cult classics. In Jack Arnold's 3-D "It Came from Outer Space" (1953), he played a trucker whose body is inhabited by a visiting extraterrestrial; in Joseph M. Newman's Technicolor "This Island Earth" (1955), Johnson opposed another alien threat, this time at the cost of his life. Johnson also turned up in supporting roles in two low budget sci-fi films making cost-effect use of Southern California beachfront property: Roger Corman's "Attack of the Crab Monsters" (1957), which provided the actor with a climactic, heroic death scene, and "The Space Children" (1958), an antiwar parable directed by Jack Arnold for Paramount Pictures.
In 1959, Johnson was cast in his first television series. Produced by Four Star Productions and Zane Grey Enterprises, "Black Saddle" (NBC/ABC, 1959-1960) paired the actor with Peter Breck, as a U.S. Marshal and a reformed gunslinger partnering up to right wrongs in the Wild West. The series ran for just 44 30-minute episodes, spread out over two seasons. Johnson was considered for the lead role in the CBS medical series "Ben Casey" (ABC, 1961-1966), which went instead to actor Vince Edwards, and later appeared in a 1962 episode as a surgeon similar in professionalism and temperament to the taciturn Casey. Second-billed on "The Jane Powell Show," a pilot for a proposed series, Johnson refused an offer from CBS to test for their upcoming situation comedy, "Gilligan's Travels." Preferring to be one-half of a two-person show than one of "seven friendly castaways," Johnson later reconsidered when the pilot went unsold and accepted the role of "The Professor," a high school chemistry teacher stranded with six other sightseers on the uncharted "Gilligan's Island."
Despite punishing reviews, "Gilligan's Island" rose to rank among the Top 10 shows in the Nielson National Ratings during its brief run. Johnson's brilliant but perpetually preoccupied polymath had an asexual innocence that made him a favorite among female viewers who projected onto The Professor their secret fantasies. After the cancellation of the sitcom in 1967, Johnson found producers reluctant to cast him in anything but comic roles, despite the fact that his résumé was rich in heavies of every stripe. Focusing primarily on TV work, he enjoyed a semi-regular role as an assistant district attorney on "Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law" (ABC, 1971-74) and also appeared in a string of "Gilligan's Island" reunion films from 1977 to 1981. Johnson contributed an uncredited cameo to Sydney Pollack's espionage thriller "Three Days of the Condor" (1976) and worked for a day on "MacArthur" (1977) as Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations during World War II. He capped his career playing an attorney on two episodes of the ABC primetime soap opera "Dynasty" (1981-89) and poked fun at The Professor on episodes of "ALF" (NBC, 1986-1990), "Newhart" (CBS, 1982-1990) and "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997).
In 1988, Johnson was reunited for the last time with all of his "Gilligan's Island" castmates on "The Late Show starring Joan Rivers" (Fox, 1986-88). In 1993, he coauthored the trade paperback Here on Gilligan's Island: The Professor's Behind-the-Scenes Guide to Everything You Wanted to Know about Gilligan's Island and in 2004 shared a TV Land Pop Culture Award for his work on the series. Since the 1994 death of his 39-year-old son David, an AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles, Russell Johnson devoted much of his later years to raising funds for HIV/AIDS research. Russell Johnson died January 16, 2014 of kidney failure in Bainbridge Island, WA.