The 12 Nerdiest Manifestations of Russell Johnson

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 6:00 am

6. The Horror at 37,000 Feet

In this post-Professor credit from 1973, Johnson was part of the flight crew of a transatlantic redeye with a medieval church altar in the hold, possessed of demonic forces. Johnson's role is on the small side, but significant and heroic.

This hilarious TV-movie has a cast that can't be beat: along with Johnson, there's Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Roy "The Invaders" Thinnes, Tammy Grimes, Jane Merrow, Paul "Wrath of Khan" Winfield, France "Elaan of Troyius" Nuyen, and best of all William Shatner as the bitter lush of a lapsed priest struggling with his faith. The finale, in which Shatner confronts the druidical evil, features some of his ripest histrionics since "Turnabout Intruder." It's way overdue for a DVD release.

5. Beyond Westworld

Even a lot of fairly hardcore geeks probably don't remember that there was an attempt at a TV series derived from Michael Crichton's 1973 favorite Westworld and its 1976 sequel Futureworld. This 1980 effort from CBS had a premise similar to The Invaders, with a mad scientist replacing real folks with robot replicas.

It lasted five episodes, of which only three were aired in the initial run. But right there in the final episode is Johnson, as a sinister robot scientist. George Takei is in it, too.

4. Gilligan's Planet

A sci-fi "reboot," long before that term existed, of Gilligan's Island set on a distant planet hardly needs more than the description to prove its nerd cred. In this 1982 version, which followed an earlier cartoon and such notorious TV reunion movies as The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, The Professor decides, one might say, to take the long way home: Instead of just fixing and re-launching the Minnow, he freakin' builds a spaceship - "It's crude, but it could fly" - and after an abortive cosmic voyage the castaways wind up re-marooned on another world and have close encounters with bizarre alien creatures.

The original cast returned to reprise their roles, with the exception of Tina Louise, so Dawn Wells did double duty as Ginger and Mary Ann. Johnson's Professor can be heard, with the rest, reciting the opening ballad.

3. The Professor, by Exclusive Premiere

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KJ's Attic/Amazon.com

If you must have The Prof in three dimensions, be prepared to dig into your wallet a bit. This 2007 action figure from Exclusive Premiere - Gilligan and The Skipper were also produced - can cost you as much as $45 bucks on Amazon.

It is, at least, a pretty good likeness.

2. Hellbender

One of Johnson's last acting jobs was lending his stentorian tones to this 1996 game, a sequel to Fury3. His role was that of the authority figure who sends the player on his mission into the cosmos, piloting the title ship (presumably named for the large, ill-tempered, fisherman-vexing salamander common to North American streams), to blast the lethal Bions into what dreams may come.

This character is referred to, by the way, as "General Cho" on the game's imdb cast list, but refers to himself in the intro as "Ambassador Cho." Perhaps at that point in the future, soldiering and diplomacy have become a single gig.

1. Gilligan's Wake

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Probably the strangest and most obsessively geeky version of Johnson's character, however, is The Professor as he's seen in Tom Carson's 2003 novel, a take on the 20th Century viewed with various levels of jaundice through the eyes of the Seven Stranded Castaways.

The novel is broken into seven chapters, each a monologue by one of the Gilligan characters: The Skipper recounts his experiences in command of a PT Boat in WWII South Pacific, for instance, where he hangs out with McHale, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon, while Thurston Howell gets Alger Hiss his job with the Department of Agriculture. Howell's beloved "Lovey" palled around in her younger days with a post-Gatsby Daisy Buchanan, and so forth.

As for The Professor, he was of course a veteran of Los Alamos. From there, the priapic Prof becomes a Roy Cohn crony and weaves his way, like an amoral Forrest Gump, through just about every American covert shenanigan of the postwar period.

The book (available on Kindle, by the way) is a stunt, of course, and way too cute for its own good. But there are many passages of fine, even moving writing in every chapter, each of which has its own idiomatic style. Most importantly, Mason, in common with millions of Boomer-era kids, understands something that disgusted TV critics of the "vast wasteland" school never looked close enough to get: that for all the undeniable corniness of the acting, and for all the simple idiocy of the writing, there's still something primal, allegorical, almost Jungian about Gilligan's Island that sticks in the mind, almost as firmly as the lyrics to its theme song.

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Previously by M.V. Moorhead:

The Top 18 Dragons Who Aren't Smaug

The 20 Most Bizarre Fictional Food Characters

Ten Movie and TV Characters Insultingly Named After Real-Life People

Ten Bizarrely Great Manifestations of Brother Theodore

The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You've Probably Never Read

The Ten Least Intimidiating, Supposedly Powerful Robots in Sci-Fi


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