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Russell Johnson

Actor and star of Gilligan's Island.

Born: November 10, 1924; Died: January 16, 2014

Russell Johnson, who has died aged 89, was an actor who became known as The Professor, the fix-it man who kept his fellow Gilligan's Island castaways supplied with gadgets.

He was a busy but little-known character actor when he was cast in the slapstick 1960s US comedy about seven people marooned on an uncharted Pacific island.

He played the high school science teacher Roy Hinkley, known to his fellow castaways as The Professor. There was seemingly no limits to his abilities when it came to building generators, shortwave radios and other contraptions from scraps of flotsam and jetsam he found on the island.

However, as Russell would joke years later, the one thing The Professor never accomplished was working out how to patch the hole in the bottom of the SS Minnow so the group could get back to civilisation.

During its three-season run on CBS, critics repeatedly lambasted the show as insipid, but after its cancellation in 1967, it found generations of new fans in reruns and reunion movies.

One of the most recent of the reunion films was 2001's Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three-Hour Tour in History, in which other actors portrayed the original seven-member cast while Johnson and two other surviving cast members narrated and reminisced.

In a 2004 interview, Johnson analysed the show's lasting appeal, saying: "Parents are happy to have their children watch it. No one gets hurt. No murders. No car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun - that's the charm."

He was born near Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and was the oldest of six children. When he was just 10 years old, his father died and he was sent to a school for orphans in Philadelphia, where he finished high school. He served in the air force during the Second World War, winning a Purple Heart.

After training as an actor, his first film role was a villain in the 1952 movie For Men Only, which began a series of roles as the bad guy, particularly in Westerns. He appeared in the science-fiction film It Came From Outer Space and also began to work in television, appearing in 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger Ben Casey, Hawaiian Eye and Death Valley Days. He also appeared in two episodes of The Twilight Zone.

In all, he appeared in more than two dozen feature films, including MacArthur, The Greatest Story Ever Told and in the 1953 Western Law and Order, he took part in a gunfight with the film's star, Ronald Reagan.

Gilligan's Island was a change of direction for him, playing a loveable character for once.

He admitted he had trouble finding work after the show ended, but harboured no resentment, and in later years he and other cast members, including Bob Denver, who had played the bumbling first mate Gilligan, often appeared together at fan conventions.

"Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Dakotas, you name a western, I did it," he said of his career. "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."

Johnson, Dawn Wells and Tina Louise were the last of the cast's survivors. Wells played farm girl Mary Ann Summers and Louise was movie star Ginger Grant.

Besides Denver, the other stars were Alan Hale Jr as Skipper Jonas Grumby and Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer as snooty millionaires Thurston and Lovey Howell.

Johnson remained active into the late 1990s, appearing on such shows as My Two Dads, Dynasty and Newhart.

He is survived by his wife Connie, daughter Kim, stepson Court Dane and a grandson.

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