Actor Russell Johnson’s passing made news headlines this week. Old Russell was 89, and fondly remembered for his three years on that nutty island with that dope, Gilligan, the blustering Skipper and Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III.
In the real world, a man of letters would have lost his mind. If there was any justice, the Professor would have struck up friendships with Mary Ann and the movie star, Ginger. Close friendships, if you know what I mean.
While people remember the Professor building all sorts of inventions to free his friends from group solitude, I remember Mr. Johnson for something else. He was the star of one of the most thoughtful “Twilight Zone” episodes” of all time.
The “Zone” has been praised for decades, and has earned its accolades. Actors such as Robert Redford, James Coburn, Lee Marvin, Elizabeth Montgomery and Carol Burnett worked for Rod Sterling, in stories that often featured twist endings. Now that I think about it, these “Twilight” actors are a vanishing breed. There are not many of them left.
Johnson starred in two episodes, “Execution” — in which he played a professor who experiments with a time machine — and “Back There,” in which he’s a regular guy who participates in a time travel experiment.
“Back There” is the better story. And I always loved that title — kind of a powerful way to describe happenings, events from long past.
In the piece, Johnson and club pals discuss time travel, and if it’s possible to change the past. Old Russell falls into the time stream — Rod was a little flimsy or just a little lazy regarding the scientific explanation — and lands on April 14, 1861. It’s the night President Lincoln will be assassinated, and Johnson’s character desperately tries to find someone who will believe his wild story about what will happen at Ford’s Theatre.
There’s a clever little cameo by John Wilkes Booth, and in the end, Lincoln’s fate is the one everyone remembers. Johnson finds himself back in the present. He hasn’t been able to influence the past, and resumes a new discussion with his friends.
But something has happened! One of the club attendants is now a revered member. He has inherited a fortune, because his grandfather was a Washington policeman who heard the wild assassination story of 1861, and tried to prevent the shooting. He rose in stature; so did his family. So the past has been changed by Russell’s actions after all.
Cue the mournful “Twilight Zone” music and Rod’s closing dire statements.
I just loved this story when I saw it reruns — no way my parents were going to let me stay up late to watch the original 1961 air date. While time travel had been the subject of lots of science-fiction stories before this episode, I had never heard of a story where someone tries to change the past.
Good old Russell Johnson! I’m glad people remember him for “Gilligan’s Island,” and he was a good sport about the whole show the rest of his life. But I hope at least some people check out his work from a more dramatic exercise — a classic piece from “back there.”