Thursday, January 16, 2014

My first Sherlock.

He was my Sherlock Holmes before I knew who Sherlock Holmes was.

He was my Professor before I knew who Professor Moriarty was.

He was Russell Johnson, and he died today.

We often talk of the actor who really made Sherlock Holmes real for us, but we rarely talk of the actor who gave us our very first impression of Holmes, the one who made an impact before we were even old enough to fully understand the role of the world's first and foremost consulting detective. It might even be impossible to say who that actor and place we first saw Sherlock Holmes was, as our memories aren't neat and tidy Google-searchable things. But when I search my younger years for any possible memories of Sherlock Holmes, who do I find waiting there at the head of the line?

Russell Johnson from Gilligan's Island. The Professor.

In the first episode of season three of Gilligan's Island (which is a little bit spooky when you consider what airs on PBS this Sunday), Gilligan was bitten by a bat and dreamed he was a Count Dracula sort. That episode, "Up At Bat," could actually be considered one of the first Holmes-Dracula confrontations, as "Inspector Sherlock" and his assistant Watney come to Transylvania to deal with Dracu-Gilligan.

After it first aired on September 12, 1966, the episode eventually went into weekday afternoon rerun parade for many, many years where kids coming home from school could plop down and watch it before supper . . . time after time after time.

Thanks to those reruns, the words, ". . . take one step, and then come up for air, and then take another step, and come up for air," are burned into my brain, even though it was Watney's line, explaining how they walked to Transylvania across the English Channel because they had trouble getting a hansom cab. Alan Hale Jr. had to play Watney with a little Nigel Bruce flair, as Nigel was still the last great Watson at that time.

But it was Russell Johnson's character of the Professor on Gilligan's Island who fit so easily into Sherlock Holmes mode, even if it was for a campy dream sequence. The Professor was that Renaissance man of multi-discipline learning that used to be the height of genius in the culture of yesteryear. Adept at medicine, mechanics, electronics, chemistry . . . he wasn't a boxer or criminologist in his non-dream character . . . the Professor could have held his own in a conversation with the real Sherlock Holmes. (Picture that dinner party -- Sherlock Holmes, the Professor, Doc Savage, Derek Flint, Buckaroo Banzai, and a few others of that sort of mind at one table, while Watson, the Skipper and Gilligan, the Fabulous Five, Flint's girls, and the Hong Kong Cavaliers partied next door. I might rather be at the party next door, now that I think about it.)

Tis a sad day to lose the man who first showed me that a fellow named Sherlock in a deerstalker and invernesse cape was a smart guy who could deal with the creatures of superstition. The Professor's eventual common-sense solving of Gilligan's over-wrought vampire crisis in the non-dream episode, albeit simpler, was entirely the type of intervention Holmes was known for, and set a concept in place for me long before the true Sherlockian part of my education could begin.

Russell Johnson, requiescat in pace, to put it as the Professor surely would. And thanks.


  1. I saw that episode when I was nine, a few years before I read Doyle's stories and became a true Sherlockian. That was about the time I started writing plays, and one of my first plays was "Sherlock Holmes Versus Dracula," inspired by that episode. It was the only one of my plays that I could convince my cousins to perform for our families, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

    When I discovered Doyle's stories several years later, the Gilligan's Island episode did not immediately come to mind, but its influence was there, predisposing me to like the Great Detective when I actually met him.