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Jason: Don’t ask for whom the bells toll; when TV stars of my childhood die, they toll for me

By Jason Offutt

Author’s note: Warning. The following column is filled with unchecked nostalgia. Enter at your own risk.

So far 2014 hasn’t been kind to my childhood.
On the day of this writing, the actors portraying two supporting characters from sitcoms I watched every day after school as a kid (if it wasn’t Godzilla week on Channel 5) died within hours of each other.
Russell Johnson and Dave Madden.
Johnson played Professor Roy Hinkley for the three-year run of “Gilligan’s Island.” The voice of reason on the Island, Hinkley, who only boarded the doomed S.S. Minnow to do research for his book, “Fun with Ferns,” could recharge batteries using salt water in a coconut, and build a washing machine, but couldn’t, as Johnson joked later, “fix the leaky boat.”
He was 89.
The Professor was a source of frustration for my parents. I deconstructed clocks, flashlights and walkie-talkies because if the Professor could build a generator and a record player using jungle vines and screwdriver, I had to be able to make something with all the neat little electronic bits I dragged out of Mom’s clock radio.
I didn’t. I couldn’t. And nothing ever went back together right.
Gilligan (Bob Denver) preceded the Professor in death, as did the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.) and Mr. and Mrs. Howell (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer). The last two surviving cast members are Dawn Wells and Tina Louise. I guess the question (since at least 1964) of “who do you like better, Mary Anne or Ginger?” will continue for a while longer.
Back in the 1990s, Johnson, Denver and Wells appeared at a festival in Smithville. I was a 20-minute drive from them that day, but I didn’t have a clue they were there signing autographs. I’m still mad about that.
Madden played Reuben Kincaid, the frazzled manager on “The Partridge Family.” He appeared in all 96 episodes from 1970 to 1974. I always felt sorry for Reuben Kincaid. He got the family’s first single on the air, nursed it until it became a hit, and scheduled gigs for that heavy baggage family for the next four years, all while not killing that horrible little Danny Partridge (played by Danny Bonaduce, and still Kincaid didn’t punch him, not once). Kincaid got as much respect as a member of Congress.
Madden was also a regular on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which beats the hell out of “The Partridge Family” any day. The guy was just funny. He was 82.
Geez, that was depressing.
But not to be out depressed by 2014, 2013 also killed off a lot of beloved actors from my childhood. Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) from “Diff’rent Strokes.” Cute little Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) from “One Day at a Time.” Annette freakin’ Funicello. Jonathan Winters. Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford (Frank Bank) from “Leave it to Beaver.” And Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) from “All in the Family.”
That’s a lot of ouch.
Seeing as some of my fondest TV memories are disappearing faster than my hair, I guess I need to keep my eye on William Shatner. He’ll be 83 March 22. The moment Captain Kirk checks out, I know my childhood TV memories will always be reruns.

Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.

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