The actor who played The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” Luzerne County native Russell Johnson, has died.
His agent, Mike Eisenstadt, said Johnson died Thursday morning at his home in Washington state of natural causes, The Associated Press reported. The actor’s wife, Constance, told ABC News that Johnson died early Thursday morning of kidney failure. He was 89.
“He died at home, peaceful, in his sleep at 5:21 a.m. today,” she said. “(He was) a very brave guy who knew what he wanted, and he wanted to be at home.”
Johnson, a native of Ashley, told The Times Leader in a 2007 interview that he initially thought The Professor was just another character to play on TV when he was first cast in the part. But he and other cast members had no idea that the show, which ran from 1964 to 1967, would eventually become a cult classic.
He admits that after the show was canceled by CBS executives, his association with the character made it difficult to find other work.
But eventually, he said, he realized just what an honor that role was. In the years the show aired in reruns and syndication, Johnson said, The Professor inspired children to learn more about science.
“I’ve had many people say their interest in science was sparked by the show — whether they be doctors or scientists,” Johnson said. “It is always a wonderful thing to hear.”
Johnson was a busy but little-known character actor when he was cast in the slapstick 1960s comedy about seven people marooned on an uncharted Pacific island.
His character, high school science teacher Roy Hinkley, built generators and other gadgets out of scraps of junk, bamboo and coconuts found on the island. Johnson later joked that the one thing The Professor never figured was how to fix the leaky boat so the group could get back to civilization.
Before pursuing an acting career, Johnson served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
He acted in several TV programs in the 1950s and ’60s, including “The Adventures of Superman,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone,” before his most famous role came along. Afterward, he appeared in several films and TV shows, including an episode of “Newhart” in which he was shown watching an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”
The oldest of five children, he was born to Russell Kennedy Johnson and Marian Wyonna Smink on Nov. 10, 1924, in Ashley. Johnson attended the Ashley Public School through third grade, until his father, a nighttime railroad police officer, died of pneumonia in 1932.
Two years later, he and his two brothers, Kenneth and David, were sent to Girard College, a boarding school, in Philadelphia. The brothers came home in the summer and 10 days at Christmas to visit family and friends.
Johnson told the newspaper he believed his most vital role was being a dad to his daughter, Kimberly, and son, David, who was AIDS coordinator for the City of Los Angeles in the late 1980s through early 1990s.
“He worked closely with the Los Angeles City Council and state legislatures for all kinds of medical projects to help AIDS patients,” Johnson said. “David was a powerful influence on a lot of the programs in place today.”
Johnson’s son died in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 39. Johnson leaves behind his wife and his daughter.