Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy birthday, Russell Johnson!

Growing up as a kid, I loved Gilligan’s Island (and still do, now that I think of it).  I didn’t know then of its critically-reviled reputation as one of the worst shows ever offered up on the boob tube…and odds are that if I did know, I probably wouldn’t have cared.  I just thought it was hilarious that “seven stranded castaways” had difficulty getting off an island that would surely have been discovered in the three seasons they spent on it—it was sort of an exercise in existentialism, a sitcom version of Sartre’s No Exit.

I thought the Professor—aka Roy Hinkley—was also a cool guy; certainly one of the smartest characters ever on a television series even though he couldn’t repair a hole in a boat but wouldn't blink twice if he had to build a nuclear reactor using seawater and cocoanuts.  The actor who played the Prof was Russell Johnson, who turns eighty-six today, having been born on this date in Ashley, PA.  Before landing the Gilligan’s Island gig, Russell played a lot of character roles (often villains) in films like It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth (if you ever get the opportunity to see a Roger Corman quickie called Rock All Night, I can’t recommend this odious piece of fromage highly enough…it’s not every day that you get to see Johnson play the bad guy [his name is “Jigger”] while Dick Miller is the hero) and he even played a lawman in Black Saddle, a TV western that starred future Big Valley son Peter Breck as a gunfighter who was packing it in to practice law.  (Saddle lasted about a season-and-a-half, a sad fate for a very good oater that later turned up in repeats under the umbrella title The Westerners.)

After the cancellation of Island, Johnson did the usual guest star appearances—I remember that he turned up a number of times as the assistant D.A. on the series Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law—and unlike other Gilligan cast members (not that I’m singling out any “movie stars” or anything) never had any problem being associated with the series, lending his voice to the various cartoon incarnations and spoofing his character on such shows as ALF and Roseanne.  For my money, Russell Johnson is one class act—and he is not likely to be forgotten here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  Here’s who else celebrates a natal anniversary today:

Martin Luther (1483-1546) – German priest and professor of theology who initiated the Protestant Reformation

Esther Dale (1885-1961) – Stage, screen and television character actress who played “Birdie Hicks” in many of the Ma & Pa Kettle movies and whose vehicles include Curly Top, In Old Kentucky, Fury, Dead End and The Awful Truth

Claude Rains (1889-1967) – Stage, screen and television character great whose films include The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca and Notorious

Carl W. Stalling (1891-1972) – Unsung musician-composer who provided the music for all those classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies

John P. Marquand (1893-1960) – Creator of the fictional sleuth Mr. Moto but also author of such books as The Late George Apley and H.M. Pulham, Esquire

Mabel Normand (1892-1930) – Legendary silent film actress-comedienne who was also one of the first females to direct and produce her own films

Anthony Kimmins (1901-1964) – British motion picture director-producer-writer whose films include Mine Own Executioner and The Captain’s Paradise

Steven Geray (1904-1973) – Hungarian stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include The Mask of Dimitrios, Spellbound and To Catch a Thief

Jane Froman (1907-1980) – Singer-actress of stage, screen, radio and television whose dramatic life story is told in the 1952 biopic With a Song in My Heart

Johnny Marks (1909-1985) – Composer-musician who put to music the story of the most famous reindeer of all

Robert Arthur, Jr. (1909-1969) – Mystery author who also wrote OTR scripts (The Mysterious Traveler, Murder by Experts) and created the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series of novels

Harry Andrews (1911-1989) – British stage, screen and television character actor whose films include The Hill, The Deadly Affair and The Night They Raided Minsky’s

Cy Endfield (1914-1995) – Stage and screen director-writer whose career was crippled by the blacklist but who still managed to turn out the likes of The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!), The Underworld Story, Mysterious Island and Zulu

Tod Andrews (1914-1972) – Stage, screen and television actor best known as TV’s The Gray Ghost but also appears in such films as Outrage and From Hell it Came

Billy May (1916-2004) – Grammy Award-winning composer-trumpeter who enjoyed a long association with artists like Frank Sinatra and Stan Freberg; also composed the theme to TV’s Naked City (Somewhere in the Night)

George Fenneman (1919-1997) – Radio and television announcer/film actor best known for his narration on the TV series Dragnet and for playing straight man to Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life

Robert A. Cinader (1924-1982) – Television writer-producer who had a hand in creating the TV series Boots and Saddles, Adam-12 and Emergency!

Richard Burton (1925-1984) – Legendary Welsh actor of stage, screen and television whose vehicles include My Cousin Rachel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Barry Crane (1927-1985) – Prolific television director-producer of such TV shows as Mannix and Mission: Impossible; also a champion bridge player

Ennio Morricone (1928-     ) – Italian composer-conductor who’s often associated with “spaghetti westerns”; composed the music to such films as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West

Norma Crane (1928-1973) – Stage, screen and television character actress whose vehicles include Tea and Sympathy, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and Fiddler on the Roof

Roy Scheider (1932-2008) – TDOY actor fave whose vehicles include Klute, The French Connection, Jaws, Last Embrace and TV’s SeaQuest DSV

Joanna Moore (1934-1997) – Film and television actress whose movies include The Last Angry Man, Follow That Dream and Walk on the Wild Side; briefly played one of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s girlfriends on The Andy Griffith Show and in real life was the mother of Tatum O’Neal

Pippa Scott (1935-     ) – TDOY actress fave whose films include The Searchers, Petulia and Cold Turkey; had regular roles on such TV series as Mr. Lucky, The Virginian and Jigsaw John

Richard Bradford (1937-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor best known for starring in the 1960s TV series Man in a Suitcase; his movies include Goin’ South, Missing and The Untouchables

Russell Means (1939-     ) – Native American activist who has also appeared in such movies as The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers and Into the West

Kyû Sakamoto (1941-1985) – Japanese singer who scored a number one pop hit with this little number:

Saxby Chambliss (1943-     ) – U.S. Senator from the Peach State and un dickhead formidable

Donna Fargo (1945-     ) – The happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.

Terence Davies (1945-     ) – British motion picture director whose films include Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes

Alaina Reed-Hall (1946-2009) – Stage, screen and television actress best known for her appearances on the sitcom 227 (as Rose) and the PBS series Sesame Street (as Olivia)

Dave Loggins (1947-     ) – Country/pop singer-songwriter

Aaron Brown (1948-     ) – Former ABC and CNN news whore who now works for PBS

Ann Reinking (1949-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress-singer-dancer whose vehicles include Movie Movie, All That Jazz, Annie and Micki + Maude

Debra Hill (1950-2005) – Motion picture writer-producer who enjoyed a long association with John Carpenter and films like Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York

Roland Emmerich (1955-     ) – German motion picture director-producer from the “blow things up real good” school of film making whose vehicles include Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow

Sinbad (1956-     ) – The comedian, not the sailor

Matt Craven (1956-     ) – Ubiquitous Canadian film and television actor whose TV series include High Incident and L.A. Doctors

Stephen Herek (1958-     ) – Motion picture director whose vehicles include Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Three Musketeers and Mr. Holland’s Opus

Mackenzie Phillips (1959-     ) – Actress-singer daughter of the Mama and the Papas’ John Phillips who was riding high as Julie Cooper on TV’s One Day at a Time until she started abusing coke

Vanessa Angel (1966-     ) – British film and television actress who I always thought was the classiest thing on the TV adaptation of Weird Science

Tracy Morgan (1968-     ) – Can anyone tell me why I’m supposed to find this guy funny?

Ellen Pompeo (1969-     ) – Film and television actress best known as the star of the TV medical drama Grey’s Anatomy

Heather Matarazzo (1982-     ) – Film and television actress whose vehicles include Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Devil’s Advocate and TV’s Now and Again

Miranda Lambert (1983-     ) – Country music vocalist whose song Famous in a Small Town always reminds me of Ravenswood, WV, the burg in which I grew up

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quizshowbob said...

When I was a kid, I used to listen to that 'Sukiyaki' song all the time. Poor Kyu died in the Japan Airlines flight 123 crash.

I loved RJ in the Twilight Zone episode where he went into the past and tried to stop Booth from killing Lincoln.

YAY Ennio. One of my favorite movie composers.

ClassicBecky said...

What an eclectic list of birthdays! My favorite Russell Johnson anecdote is from watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000's theatrical release of This Island Earth. When Johnson appeared as a Professor (what else?), one of the robots said "What's this 'and the rest' crap?" That whole movie made me sick from laughing, and that line was right on. Of course, later in the series the song was changed to include "...the professor and Mary Ann..." which was only fair!
Oh, and Tracy Morgan...I'm thrilled to see that someone else does not understand his appeal!

Scott said...

MST3K fans will also remember Russell Johnson from the Sci-Fi Channel episode The Space Children.

At a panel on Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, Russell sat beside Rex Reason, and when someone in the audience asked Rex "What was it like being in the bong?" (the smoke-filled "conversion tubes" on the Metalunan spacecraft), the wizened hunk of beefcake was clearly baffled. Russ immediately leaned over and whispered a few words to his old co-star while unmistakably miming the operation of a bong. The resulting laughter from the crowd completely drowned out Rex's eventual response.

MST fans will also remember the maddening, earwormy contributions of Ennio Morricone to 1967's Operation Kid Brother, which was riffed on the show under the title Operation Double 007.

Stacia said...

Someone beat me to the "What's the 'and the rest' crap?" joke! Argh! I don't get up early enough in the day.

I LOVED Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. To this day I wish Jupiter Jones was a real person. Block's books in the series were the best.

Rick29 said...

Ivan, thrilled to see that you mentioned the underrated BLACK SADDLE. Loved that show's theme, too. My sister had it on an album of TV themes (along with Percy Faith's THE VIRGINIAN theme). You know, some of the old TV Westerns had great music.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Russ immediately leaned over and whispered a few words to his old co-star while unmistakably miming the operation of a bong

I'd like to think "the Professor" was so good he could build a bong out of bamboo.

Ivan, thrilled to see that you mentioned the underrated BLACK SADDLE.

I caught this show once or twice in the glory days of TVLand -- I'd really like to see it again, and I'm sure there are probably some enterprising young bootleggers out there who have copies of the shows. (Ah, youth!)