Russell Johnson, the actor whose genius Professor Roy Hinkley was always one coconut away from inventing a way off “Gilligan’s Island,” has died this week of natural causes. He was 89.
Dawn Wells, who played fellow castaway Mary Ann, said her friend passed away this morning after being in hospice for a short period of time.
“Russell was 100 percent a gentleman,” she told “The Insider.” “A genuine, dear, wonderful man.”
The Professor’s backstory identifies him as a high school science teacher who was born in Cleveland. His principal expertise was as a botanist, whose purpose in joining the ill-fated voyage that stranded the castaways was to write a book to be titled Fun With Ferns. His main function on the show was to devise many ways for the castaways to live more comfortably on the island. Many of his inventions (including a method for recharging the batteries in the ubiquitous radio) utilized coconuts and bamboo, both of which were in plentiful supply. Aside from his proficiency in science, he was also adept and well-versed in law,literature, social sciences, and the arts. Besides a list of degrees from various schools he provides in one episode, little was ever learned about his past and nothing was ever learned about his family. In several episodes there are brief remarks on his past: in the pilot he is described as a research scientist and “well-known scoutmaster”; in another when a big game hunter comes to the Island and asks the Professor what sports he took, the answer is “chess club”; after kissing Ginger for a prolonged period (during filming of a silent movie) he claims to be a “scuba diver”; in another when the castaways try to recreate who killed “Randolph Blake”, the Professor threatens to “…cancel his subscription to the Science Quarterly“.
The Professor was portrayed as the most neutral and level-headed character. He usually displayed more patience with Gilligan than the other castaways, and was often called upon to settle disputes. As a result, he often served as the leader of the castaways whom the others respected because of his great store of knowledge, although the castaways rarely mentioned this. For unexplained reasons—possibly for research purposes in writing his book (although titled Fun with Ferns, ferns may not have been its sole topic)—the Professor brought a large number of books on diverse subjects on a three hour pleasure-cruise in Hawaii. On many occasions, he conveniently pulls out a book which has exactly the facts needed to fix or explain a particular problem they are having. In several episodes electric power for phonographs or washing machines is generated by employing someone (usually Gilligan) to manually pedal, or turn, a pulley, which the Professor has engineered.
A running joke about the Professor was his ability to build anything from coconuts and bamboo, yet he was somehow unable to create a raft or other means to leave the island. This was parodied in the sitcom Roseanne, when one of the characters playing The Professor stated after they crashed, “This hole on the boat defies all of my advanced knowledge. To fix it would be impossible…now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go create explosive fillings out of sand.” Also, in “Weird Al” Yankovic‘s song “Isle Thing” (a parody of Tone Lōc‘s “Wild Thing“), he sings: “She said ‘That guy’s a genius’/I shook my head and laughed/’If he’s so fly/then tell me why/he couldn’t build a lousy raft?'”
In an interview with Larry King, Bob Denver explained that the Professor simply “had no talent for boat-building.” This is the logical answer, since the island was stated to be 1000 miles from civilization, and an inexpert repair would be risky on such a long journey. Furthermore, in an early episode, “Goodbye Island”, he attempts to do so with a native tree syrup, which proves a disastrous failure that results in the boat being completely destroyed. (Also, earlier in the series, Gilligan and Skipper built a raft in order to sail for help, however it was revealed that the island was near a shark-filled area that made such a journey too dangerous for anything other than an actual boat or rubber raft.)
(excerpts from NY Daily News and Wikipedia)