The Professor and Reuben: Why the Loss of Sitcom Icons Stings

When news broke that Russell Johnson — known to generations of television viewers simply as The Professor from Gilligan’s Island — had died, Baby Boomers and post-Boomers alike immediately began expressing their sorrow at his passing, whether through social media or by reaching out to old friends.

When later that same day, it was revealed that Dave Madden, more familiar to most as Reuben Kincaid on The Partridge Family, had also passed away, the cycle repeated.

Both men lived long lives — Johnson was 89 and Madden 82 at the time of their deaths — and had been largely out of the public eye for decades. More than that, it seems safe to say that many of the people expressing sadness at the passing of the sitcom icons hadn’t watched an episode of either of their shows in years. Yet, even with that distance, it still felt as though a relative they had always liked as a child was gone.

For a great number of people over the age of 40, watching sitcoms in syndication was a daily afterschool activity, as much a part of childhood as homework or dodge ball. The cast of The Brady Bunch or The Munsters or The Monkees were as familiar to kids as their teachers, and usually more easily remembered. When an actor that was so intimately a part of childhood memories dies, it brings about an almost visceral reaction, as though some part of the person’s youth was just extinguished.

The beauty and comfort of television in the age of online streaming, YouTube and DVDs is that it’s easy enough to find reassurance that those shows are still out there somewhere, easy enough to get to with only a couple of clicks. To the millions that quietly — or not so quietly — sang the theme songs to Gilligan’s Island and The Partridge Family upon hearing of Johnson’s and Madden’s deaths, it’s nice to know that their work will continue on.

With the fractured television viewing that cable, satellite and online sources have brought about; it’s easy to think that these reactions will become more muted in the future; the shared experiences of childhood replaced by target marketing and splintered demographics. Here’s a guess, though, that sometime in the distant future, a group of middle-aged people will share a moment lamenting the loss of someone from a current Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show from their youth. After all, while things will always change, those impressions from childhood never truly go away… just as the Professor and Reuben will stay tucked away in people’s memories for years to come.