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 naive island castaways on the hit sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” died Thursday at his home on Bainbridge Island. He was 89.
His agent, Michael Eisenstadt, confirmed the death.
“Gilligan’s Island,” which was seen on CBS from 1964 to 1967 and 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 va-va-voom movie star (Tina Louise); the snobbish wealthy couple Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife, known as Lovey (Natalie Schafer); and Mary Ann, the prototypical girl next door (Dawn Wells).
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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 couldn’t figure out how to patch a hole in a boat hull.
Russell David Johnson was born on Nov. 10, 1924, near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the eldest of six children. His father died when Mr. Johnson 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 Army Air Forces during World War II, winning 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 Westerns in the role of the black hat, even though he was a poor horseman.
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 moved to Bainbridge Island in 1988, but he and his wife didn’t intentionally set out to move to an island, he jokingly told a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter in 1993.
Geri Hagan, a Bainbridge Island resident who cut Mr. Johnson’s hair for six years, said he was like most Bainbridge residents, very genuine and “salt of the Earth.”
“He would tell me lovely stories about himself and Hollywood back in the day,” said Hagan. “He loved it here.”
The two remaining castmates, Louise and Wells, both expressed their condolences on social media Thursday.
“Russell was a true gentleman, a good father, a great friend and ‘the rest,’ ” Wells wrote on her Facebook page. “I love him and shall miss him.”
“So sad that we’ve lost Russell Johnson,” Louise wrote on Twitter. “He lives in our hearts forever and is loved by so many.”
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.”
Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, Connie; a daughter, Kim; a stepson, Court Dane; and a grandson.
Material from Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell and The Associated Press was included in this report.