The 12 Nerdiest Manifestations of Russell Johnson

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 6:00 am

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To underestimate the importance of The Professor would be a mistake. His own show seemed, at least at the beginning, to do so; he and his perky co-castaway Mary Anne were dismissively lumped together as "The Rest" at the end of "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island" in the first season, although this rudeness was rectified in later seasons. All the same, the handsome, tousled-haired fellow in the perfectly cleaned and pressed white shirt and khaki pants seemed, at times, little more than a plot convenience, a handy spouter of exposition and builder of gadgets. The Professor - Roy Hinkley by name, you may recall - put down roots in the Boomer psyche, however. Along with Mr. Spock and Mr. Peabody, he's part of a trinity that made certain young TV rerun junkies of the '60s and '70s want to grow up to be insufferable pedantic know-it-alls.

While the Professor certainly qualifies as an iconic pop-culture nerd, Russell Johnson, the actor most remembered for playing him, wasn't always nerdy. He was cool enough to play one of the shady crooks on the lam that holds a hipster watering hole hostage in Roger Corman's 1957 Rock All Night. And he was manly enough to play second lead to Peter Breck in the western series Black Saddle, and appear in dozens of other movie and TV westerns. He even had a guest shot on that infamous season of the original Dallas that turned out to be a dream. But many of the other movies and shows on Johnson's long list of credits are near and dear to the nerdy heart. Johnson, who passed on last week at 89, was a frequent star and supporting player in sci-fi and horror, and had he never played the resident smarty-pants of the Island's seven castaways, whose expansive erudition and ingenuity was somehow never quite enough to overcome Gilligan's prodigal gift for fucking things up, there's a good chance that midcentury pop-culture geeks might still remember him with a smile.

Here are a few of the other highpoints of The Russell Johnson Canon...




12. It Came From Outer Space

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The perils, and maybe the rewards, of typecasting were driven home to me when I saw this 1953 classic, immortalized in the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, at a midnight movie in the early '80s, in full 3-D. At the first appearance of Johnson, whispers of "The Professor...It's The Professor...Hey, it's The Professor" could be heard all over the theater.

Johnson has a pretty nice role here. As one of the desert telephone lineman possessed by aliens and pressed into service repairing their broken-down spaceship, he gets to stare into the sun without discomfort, and also to speak in that wooden, robotic manner that indicated that he was "one of them," before this convention became a cliché.

It Came From Outer Space was directed, by the way, by the great Jack Arnold, who would go on from such triumphs as this, The Creature of the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man to direct numerous episodes of, you guessed it, Gilligan's Island.

Arnold also directed his old pal Johnson in...

11. The Space Children

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Arnold's atmospheric, dreamlike Cold War fantasy of 1958 is set in a rocket scientist trailer park on the California coast, in which the children of the secret missile researchers diligently working toward World War Three fall under the influence of a giant glowing space cerebrum in a seaside cave. This extraterrestrial frontal lobe is a pinko peacenik, using the kids - including the unnerving little girl from the beginning of Them! - to sabotage their parents' effort to help the U.S.A. show the Commie rats what for.

Johnson, here billed, for some reason, as "Russell D. Johnson," has yet another supporting part as one of the dads, a drunk who comes to an unhappy end. While I wouldn't call it a "cheesy movie" - in its low-budget way it has an odd, visually formal elegance - it was nonetheless used as MST3K fodder.

So was...

10. This Island Earth

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Probably second only to Forbidden Planet in lush production values among '50s sci-fi movies was this interplanetary epic of 1955 from Universal-International. It's well-remembered for its white-haired alien visitors from Metaluna, and for their lumbering, bulgy-brained stooges the mutants, here pronounced mu-TANTS, but it may not be remembered that Johnson has a supporting role and (spoiler!) a juicy death scene.

When Mystery Science Theater 3000 took its act to the big screen in 1996, This Island Earth was the movie to which the front row smartasses chose to crack wise. As I recall, Johnson isn't onscreen for more than a few seconds before they start in with the Gilligan's Island references.

9. Attack of the Crab Monsters

"OK Professor, how are the crabs blowin' up the island?"

It's the sort of question that, years later, the Gilligan's Island gang would ask The Professor, but in this Roger Corman favorite of 1957 it's Johnson doing the asking, and the disappointing if scientifically respectable answer is: "I'm not sure."

One of Corman's earlier efforts, Attack of the Crab Monsters concerns a scientific expedition to an irradiated island, in search of a previous scientific party. What they find instead are mutant crab creatures who, having consumed the previous party, have absorbed their intelligences and plan to use them to take over the world. As soon as they're able, they start scarfing up the brains of the new gang, too, and before long have assimilated their knowledge and memories as well, though apparently not their consciences or loyalties. It's quintessential, utterly deranged kitsch, and while Johnson is the second lead (spoiler alert!) he gets to save the hero and heroine, and, presumably, the world in the movie's final minutes.

8. Superman: "The Runaway Robot"

In his pre-Professor days, Johnson even tangled with the Man of Steel. In this episode of the original Superman series, he is the leader of a trio of jewel thieves, the other two being usual-suspect character players Dan Seymour (of Casablanca) and John Harmon (of Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever" and "A Piece of the Action"). It's a jolt to hear The Professor speaking "dese dem n' dose" gangster patois.

The three of them purloin wacky inventor Lucien Littlefield's remote-controlled crime-fighting robot and try to use him for their nefarious plan to crack a safe. Have no fear, Krypton's favorite son foils their scheme, dismantling their metal henchman in the process.

7. The Twilight Zone: "Execution"

In this fairly clever 1960 episode of the anthology series, Johnson plays a scientist who uses his time machine to transport a man (Albert Salmi) from the old west to the present, only to realize that his abductee is a killer, and he snatched him right out of the noose in which he was very justly being hanged. He's punished for his hubris before the first commercial break.

He later appeared in another Twilight Zone episode, "Back There," also a time travel tale: Set in Washington, D.C., this 1961 episode features the actor as, oddly enough, a professor, who finds himself mysteriously transported back in time to just before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This isn't one of the show's finest half-hours, perhaps, but it did offer Johnson a lead role, something he didn't get often enough.

Having done time in Rod Serling's universe, Johnson later did duty on The Outer Limits, in the 1964 episode "Specimen: Unknown."


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