THE PROFESSOR OR MR. HOWELL?

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By now, the question “Ginger or Maryann?” has been asked a million times in a million drunken places. But when was the last time anybody bended the gender and asked: The Professor or Mr. Howell?

Gilligan and the Skipper can be ruled out right away. With those “his and hers” hammocks that seem tailor-made for spooning, the captain and his first mate appear to have worked out some sort of prison-style marriage arrangement. It’s the code of the sea. It also means they’re off the market.

 

Like most people, I would have presumed that the Professor was the one who had his choice of women. After all, he was the only one who could harness science and technology to help them with their predicament. He was a provider.

 

Physically, he was a fine specimen, well put together while the other male castaways were built for physical comedy or adult diapers.

 

Mr. Howell seemed like a braggart and buffoon, an old codger without much in the looks department. All he brought to the island was a chest full of currency and an over-stimulated sense of entitlement.

 

But Mr. Howell was a people person, and the Professor wasn’t.

 

Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, but I’ve switched from being mildly idealistic to bitterly realistic about life. The new bitter realist understands that it’s the Mr. Howells who call the shots in life, not the Professors.

 

Maybe what did it was watching Mad Men and seeing the way the character of Roger Sterling gets all the women he wants without really bringing much to the table besides money, arrogance, the ability to charm, and a lack of morals.

 

Mr. Howell has money, an outsized ego, and can be charming and persuasive when he needs to be. So the new me has no doubt that he would get Ginger and Maryann whenever he wanted, while the Professor was too busy being earnest and trying to get them off the island. That’s what the new me thinks.

 

Nonetheless, the Professor was the first guy on TV to make nerds cool.

 

As much as I love ’70s teensploitation films, the one thing I began to notice is that they don’t treat nerds and smart people at all well in that genre.

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The Professor

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The Nerd.

It wasn’t until the ’80s that you had movies like War Games, Weird Science, and Revenge of the Nerds and intelligent people become more exalted. As much as I prefer the ’70s to the ’80s, this is one case where the ’80s have the ’70s beat. And it all goes back to the Professor. He was the first guy to make smart people cool on TV.

 

Now, in an era when Steve Jobs is a hero, and newer and more exciting smart gadgets seem to fall into our hands everyday, it seems like life is imitating art as far as the Professor and Gilligan’s Island go.

 

In a capitalist society, we understand that the Mr. Howells and the Roger Sterlings are necessary evils in the world. And on some level, we all end up doing their bidding, whether we like it or not. But for the idealist inside each of us, the Professor remains our hero.

 

Considering the outsized role that TV reruns play in our psyches, and the fact that we know the characters of Gilligan’s Island better than we know America’s own founding fathers, Russell Johnson’s portrayal of the Professor likely had a more beneficial effect on society as a positive role model than we can dare to imagine.

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Russell Johnson (1924-2014)

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