JOHNSON, LAMONT

U.S. Director

Lamont Johnson is an actors' director who's also a director's director. Acclaimed, respected, and superbly consistent, he is television's answer to William Wyler. Between his 1964 Emmy nomination and Directors Guild of America Award for a Profiles in Courage episode ("The Oscar Underwood Story") and his 1992 Emmy nomination for the real-life disaster film Crash Landing, he amassed 11 Emmy nominations (winning in 1985 for Wallenberg: A Hero's Story and in 1988 for Gore Vidal's Lincoln) and eight DGA nominations (winning four, plus a special award as "The most outstanding TV director of 1972"). Although he's racked up admirable big-screen credits, too, such as The Last American Hero (a 1973 movie based on Tom Wolfe's profile of a stock-car racing champion, "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!"), television is the medium that has allowed him the most room to flex his creative muscles. His video credit list contains character portraits, period epics, theater pieces, and docudramas.

Employing what he learned in theater, radio, live TV, and feature films, he imbues his TV movies with dramatic briskness and invention, vital sound, and visual dimension. But his distinctive humane touch derives from his feeling for performers, who in some way become his true subject. Each year brings new additions to his gallery of unforgettable figures, from John Ritter's agonizingly frustrated Vietnam Vet in the Agent Orange expose Unnatural Causes (1986), to Annette O'Toole's Rose Fitzgerald--part stoic heroine, part religious maniac--in The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1988). The vibrant characters who populate his TV films would fill a small city--Johnsonville, USA--except his art encompasses the world. One of his most impressive accomplishments is Wallenberg: A Hero's Story, starring Richard Chamberlain, in which the Scarlet Pimpernel-like heroism of Raoul Wallenberg (the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews) puts the horror of the Holocaust in stark relief.

Gifted with a "roaring bass voice," Johnson turned pro as a radio actor at age 16, and financed his college education as a broadcast performer, news announcer and disc jockey. After student theater experience (such as directing a production of Liliom in a women's gym), he moved from Los Angeles to New York with the aim of acting on the stage. He became a mainstay of radio soap operas and a Broadway understudy; on a USO tour through Europe he befriended Gertrude Stein, who gave him rights to her play, Yes is for a Very Young Man. His first professional directing job was to mount it, in 1948, at Off Broadway's Cherry Lane Theater, with a cast that boasted Anthony Franciosa, Gene Saks, Michael V. Gazzo, Bea Arthur, and Kim Stanley.

Although he swore off directing after that--he couldn't bear the role of referee--he came under its spell for good while acting for such broadcast luminaries as John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, and Jack Smight. In 1955, Johnson made his TV directorial debut guiding Richard Boone through an adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the hour-long live drama series, Matinee Theater. (Johnson ended up doing twenty-eight of those shows in two years.) In 1958, Boone gave Johnson the opportunity to break into filmed TV when the star insisted that Johnson be hired for six episodes of the second season of his hit Western, Have Gun, Will Travel. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Johnson went on to direct popular and innovative dramatic series such as Peter Gunn, Naked City, and The Defenders. He did a fistful of episodes for The Twilight Zone, including "Kick the Can" (which Steven Spielberg remade in his The Twilight Zone--The Movie).

But it was a trio of collaborations with the producing-writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link that cemented his place in broadcast history. Levinson and Link smartly emphasized the plight of individuals while blazing trails in TV-movies' depictions of race relations (My Sweet Charlie, 1970), homosexuality (That Certain Summer, 1972), and American military conduct (The Execution of Private Slovik, 1974). Coming fully into his own as a director, Johnson shaped performances with an emotional combustion to match the script's social conflagrations. Working on location whenever possible, he brewed alive and unpredictable atmospheres. It's rare to remember character bits and mood points from what are usually called "message movies." But what springs to mind from My Sweet Charlie is the edgy sheepishness of the fugitive Northern black lawyer, Al Freeman, Jr., as he tries to persuade the pregnant Southern runaway played by Patty Duke that he can impersonate a down-home black man. From That Certain Summer, one recalls the uncomfortable-looking figures of the gay hero, Hal Holbrook, and his teenage son, Scott Jacoby, as the father struggles to explain his lifestyle on a three-minute downhill walk. Picture The Execution of Private Slovik--the first docudrama TV movie--and a different trek pops into memory: the penetratingly sad, snowblown death march for the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion after the Civil War. Though the writers received the lion's share of attention, and the scripts were solid and sensitive, Johnson's direction was the most artistic aspect of these ambitious projects, lending them delicacy as well as poignance. In the capper to this spate of TV productivity, his 1975 Fear on Trial (based on a David W. Rintels script), Johnson's evocation of a frigid 1950s New York City winter overpowered the screenplay's conventional, simplistic anti-blacklisting theatrics; it looked as if the Cold War itself had set the city's temperature.

Johnson did astonishing work while constantly shuttling among media from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. In 1980 two of his favorite TV productions premiered. The first, Paul's Case, a 52-minute-long drama for the PBS American Short Story series (shot in ten days on a $180,000 budget), is a powerful, peculiar American tragedy about the downfall of a fragile escapist. Following Willa Cather's original story to the letter, Johnson led Eric Roberts to his best performance--he's splendidly off-kilter as a high school boy in 1905 Pittsburgh who's too far into his dream world of glamour and theatricality to come of out it alive. Johnson's TV-movie Off the Minnesota Strip, which aired just three months later, is a revelation of a contemporary adolescent limbo, with Mare Winningham, as a teenage hooker, brilliantly conveying the interlocking social and sexual pressures that trap teenagers into self-destructive fantasies of "making it." Around the same time as these TV milestones, Johnson completed one of his finest feature films, Cattle Annie and Little Britches (not released until 1981), an offbeat western that explored Americans' need for pop mythology and turned the adventures of its young pulp heroines (stunningly played by Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer) into coming-of-age action poetry.

Pulling off three wildly different projects in a year would be admirable for the resident director of a repertory company or an anthology series; to do it by leap-frogging the worlds of network TV, PBS, and independent filmmaking would seem a feat. But not for Johnson. He's nurtured a robust, sane creativity by approaching the theatrical arts as a continuum--and creating an emotional spectrum that retains its intensity whether projected on a movie screen or transmitted via satellite and cable.

-Mike Sragow


Lamont Johnson
Photo courtesy of Lamont Johnson

LAMONT JOHNSON. Born in Stockton, California, U.S.A., 30 September 1922. Educated at the University of California, Los Angeles, 1942-43; studied at Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Married: Toni Merrill, 1945, children: Jeremy, Carolyn, Christopher Anthony. Stage producer and director since 1946; founded UCLA Theater Group (now Centre Theater Group) in 1959; television director since early 1950s; film director since 1961. Recipient: numerous Screen Director's Guild Television awards ; numerous Emmy awards.

TELEVISION (actor)

1949     Julius Caesar
1952     Aesop
1953-54 Prize Winner

TELEVISION SERIES (director)

1956-58 Matinee Theater
1957-63 Have Gun Will Travel
1958-63 The Rifleman
1958-61 Peter Gunn
1959-65 Twilight Zone
1959-60 Johnny Ringo
1960-63 Naked City
1961-65 The Defenders

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1985 Wallenberg: A Hero's Story
1988 The Kennedys of Massachusetts (aired 1990)
1988 Gore Vidal's Lincoln

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (director)

1964 Profiles in Courage
1969 Deadlock
1970 My Sweet Charlie
1972 That Certain Summer
1974 The Execution of Private Slovik (also writer)
1975 Fear on Trial
1979 American Short Story: Paul's Case
1980 Off the Minnesota Strip
1981 Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper
1981 Crisis at Central High
1982 Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice
1982 Dangerous Company
1982 Beatrice
1982 Two Plays by David Mamet (Showtime Cable)
1983 Jack and the Beanstalk
1984 Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter
1986 Unnatural Causes
1990 Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase
1992 Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232
1993 The Broken Chain
1995 The Man Next Door

FILMS (actor)

Sally and Saint Anne, 1952; The Human Jungle, 1954; The Brothers Rico, 1957; One on One, 1977; Sunnyside, 1979; Death Wish II, 1981; The Five Heartbeats, 1991; Class Act, 1992; Fear of a Black Hat, 1993; Waiting to Exhale, 1995; The Great White Hype, 1996.

FILMS (director)

Thin Ice, 1961; A Covenant with Death, 1966; Kona Coast, 1968, The McKenzi Break, 1970; A Gunfight, 1971; The Groundstar Conspiracy, 1972; You'll Like My Mother, 1972; The Last American Hero, 1973; Visit to a Chief's Son, 1974; Lipstick, 1976; One on One, 1977; Somebody Killed Her Husband, 1978; FM, 1978; Cattle Annie and the Little Britches, 1981; Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983

OPERA (director)

The Man in the Moon, 1959; Iphigenie En Tauride, 1962; Orfeo, 1990.

STAGE (actor)

Manja, 1939; Young Woodley, 1946; Yes Is For a Very Young Man, 1946; Macbeth, 1948; The Pony Cart, 1954; A Christmas Carol, 1980-81.

STAGE (director)

Yes Is For a Very Young Man, 1946; The Potting Shed, 1957; The Man In the Moon, 1957; The Skin of Our Teeth, 1958; Under Milkwood, 1959; 4 Comedies of Despair, 1960; The Egg, 1961; The Perfect Setup, 1962; 'Tis a Pity She's A Whore, 1963; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1964; The Adventures of the Black Girl In Her Search for God, 1969; The Tempest, 1978; Popular Neurotics, 1981; California Dogfight, 1983; Nanawata, 1985; The Eighties, 1988-89; Orfeo, 1990.

PUBLICATION

"The Director As Answerman." DGA News (Los Angeles), October-November 1994.

FURTHER READING

Averson, Richard, and David Manning White, editors. Electronic Drama: Television Plays of the Sixties. Beacon Press (Boston), 1971.

Avrech, Robert, and Larry Gross. "Lamont Johnson." Millimeter (New York), May 1976.

Levinson, Richard, and William Link. Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime-Time Television. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.

Orner, Eric: "A-: Lamont Johnson." Film Comment (New York), September-October 1977.

 

See also Director, Television; Levinson, Richard; Link, William