When I was growing up in the 1970s, Russell Johnson was one of those character actors who seemed to be in everything from the 1950s, both movies and TV shows. Even in small parts, his sharp, handsome features and pleasant voice always stood out. Though he had a nondescript name, and was rarely a leading player, I always recognized him and welcomed his presence. He projected a quiet authority that, for me, sort of made him the acting equivalent of comfort food.
With his passing, almost all the focus has been on his (admittedly iconic) role on that stupid show, so I will gratefully bypass any further mention of that. As you’ll see, Russell Johnson was someone well worth remembering for the entirety of his career, not just one role on one show.
Johnson started his acting career the hard way: After being in a plane that was shot down in the Philippines during World War II (earning him a Purple Heart), he used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll in acting school. He obviously picked the right career path, because by 1950 he was making his acting debut on the TV series Fireside Theatre. In 1952, he made his motion picture debut in For Men Only, a B drama starring and directed by Paul Henreid.
And from then on, Russell was off and running, most often appearing in science fiction stories, crime dramas, or westerns. On TV he was seen in Adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Lone Ranger, Route 66, Ben Casey, The F.B.I., Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and both Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
In the movies, he was seen in the crime picture, Loan Shark (1952), the car racing drama Johnny Dark (1954), and westerns such as The Stand at Apache River (1953), Tumbleweed (1953) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954). In 1957 he co-starred with fellow character actor Dick Miller in Roger Corman’s Rock All Night.
And then there were the science fiction films: It Came from Outer Space (1953), which was part of the first 3-D craze. Then there’s the big budget This Island Earth (1955). And the no budget but wonderful Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), again for Roger Corman. As a kid growing up and discovering the magic of movies, busy character actors like Russell Johnson were like part of an extended (perhaps very extended) family. Of course, you didn’t actually know them, but they were always around.
I can still vividly remember sitting in the Craterian Theater in Medford, Oregon, as a kid, watching a 3-D revival of It Came from Outer Space, with the distracting red and blue glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. The scene where the space monster meets and gobbles up Russell Johnson is one that reverses the usual 3-D protocol of things coming out at the audience. But in this scene, the audience sees things from the perspective of the alien, as it moves in towards a terrified Johnson. Even if he had never acted again after that film, that image would always be seared into my memory.
Of course, Russell Johnson did act again – and again, and again. And that’s why he’s worth remembering.