‘Gilligan’s Island’: How One Star’s Service in World War II Got Them a Start in Acting

by Josh Lanier

It’s unclear how The Professor on Gilligan’s Island could make a radio from a coconut, but it could have been in the military. That’s how Russell Johnson, the actor who played the role for three seasons, got his start acting.

Johnson served as a second lieutenant in the US Army Air Force during World War II. He was the navigator on a bomber that the Japanese military shot down over the Solomon Islands. He broke both ankles after the plane crashed into the ocean. Though, his co-pilot was killed, according to his obituary. Johnson died in 2014 at the age of 89. The Army awarded Johnson the Purple Heart for his injuries.

After the war, Johnson used the GI Bill to study acting at the Actors’ Laboratory in Hollywood. He landed his first film role in the 1952 film For Men Only, where he played a sadistic fraternity leader. Johnson also worked with future president Ronald Reagan on the western Law and Order. He also scored roles in two episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the first season’s “Execution” and a second-season episode called “Back There.” He played a professor in the first episode.

But by far, fans remember him most for his time trapped on Gilligan’s Island. For 98 episodes and several specials, Johnson played Professor Roy Hinkley on the beloved show.

‘Gilligan’s Island’ Cast Loved Him

Dawn Wells, who played Mary Anne on Gilligan’s Island, said the rest of the cast loved Russel Johnson for his sense of humor. And despite being a war hero, he didn’t discuss his time in the military often, she recalled in a 2015 interview.

“He was the funniest person on the set, he had the greatest sense of humor,” Wells said. “But I did not know until the funeral, I knew he fought in World War II as a navigator.

“I knew he was shot down on the Solomon Islands,” she said. “[But] I did not know until the funeral he got a Purple Heart. He never mentioned it. He was wonderful.”

When he died, Wells eulogized him on Facebook.

“Russell was a true gentleman, a good father, a great friend and ‘the rest,’ ” Wells wrote on her Facebook page. “I love him and shall miss him.”

Wells died in December because of complications of COVID-19. That leaves Tina Louise, who played Ginger Grant, as the last surviving member of Gilligan’s Island.

In her interview, Wells said she and Johnson weren’t included in the original Gilligan’s Island theme song. But Bob Denver wanted them added. And on Gilligan’s Island, Gilligan gets what he wants. The show included them in the theme song from then on as they were no longer just part of “the rest.”

Ironically, Johnson retired to an island in the 1980s when he quit acting. He and his wife moved to Bainbridge Island in Washington in 1988 and was a beloved member of the community until his death, the Seattle Times wrote.