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Happy Birthday, Lamont Johnson!


I’m certainly not the first person to observe that the best directors—whether they work in film, television, theater, or elsewhere—are often those with an extensive background in acting…and today’s birthday celebrant, Lamont Johnson, certainly proves to be a solid example of this.  Born Ernest Lamont Johnson, Jr. in Stockton, CA on this date in 1922, Lamont would become a highly respected film director (The McKenzie Break, Cattle Annie and Little Britches).  He would go on to enjoy even more success on the small screen, with eleven Emmy Award nominations for directing and producing, winning two trophies each for the miniseries Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Lincoln (1988).  Here’s where things get interesting: Johnson got his show business break before a radio microphone; as radio’s Lord of the Jungle (Tarzan).  He certainly had an easier time of it than, say, movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.

johnson3Lamont Johnson’s interest in radio acting began as a member of the kiddie troupe on Let’s Pretend…but it really blossomed while he was attending Pasadena City College.  By the time he transferred to UCLA, he had made his stage debut at the Pasadena Playhouse.  A hip injury kept Johnson out of the service during WW2, so to “do his bit” Lamont joined the USO and was sent to entertain troops in Europe.  His future wife, actress Toni Merrill, was in the same USO troupe (the two of them had met at Pasadena City College) and the couple eventually tied the knot in Paris in 1945.

Even before his return to the States, Lamont had already expressed an interest in directing stage plays (which he did at local theatres).  Still, to make sure there were adequate groceries on the Johnson household’s table, he relied on radio as his main source of income.  He was a member of the cast of The Adventures of Frank Merriwell, and played Ms. Warren’s first beau on the offbeat daytime drama Wendy Warren and the News (the program would begin with a legitimate newscast, then segue into the soap opera content).

johnson1Johnson’s radio resume includes appearances on such radio favorites as The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, The Clock, Crime Classics, Defense Attorney, Escape, The Man Called X, The Man from Homicide, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (one of several actors to play legman Archie Goodwin), Night Beat, The Silent Men, Suspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Lamont’s voice—described in his 2010 obituary in The Independent as “richly sonorous” and “virile”—made him an ideal announcer, a function that he fulfilled on shows like Life Can Be Beautiful, The Six-Shooter, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, Truth or Consequences, Vic and Sade, and The Whistler.

tarzanLamont Johnson’s best-remembered role in the aural medium was as the lead on Tarzan, a transcribed series that began in 1950 as one of several series from syndicator Commodore Productions (at the time enjoying great success with Hopalong Cassidy).  By January of 1951, Mutual made room for Tarzan on its schedule, and from March 22, 1952 to June 27, 1953 the series aired over CBS Saturday evenings, sponsored by General Foods/Post Toasties.  It was at this point in Johnson’s career that he also began appearing in films like Retreat, Hell! (1952), Sally and Saint Anne (1952), The Human Jungle (1954), and The Brothers Rico (1957).  Universal had signed him to a contract, but Lamont never made the impact on audiences that his fellow studio contractees Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, or Jeff Chandler did.  He gravitated toward acting on television, and from there it was just a short walk to working behind the camera.

johnson2Lamont’s first television assignment was to tackle a one-hour adaptation of Wuthering Heights for NBC-TV’s daytime Matinee Theater, and his success paved the way for 77 additional live productions for that series over the next two years.  Johnson then moved seamlessly into the world of taped television programs, helming episodes of programs like Have Gun – Will Travel, Peter Gunn, Naked City, and Dr. Kildare.  His work for The Twilight Zone still resonates with fans of that iconic series years later, with classic episodes like “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can.”

Johnson’s debut as a feature film director was 1967’s A Covenant with Death, a legal thriller with a promising plot that was ultimately sabotaged by its leaden pace.  Lamont followed it with The Mackenzie Break (1970), an exciting thriller with the novelty of German prisoners busting out of an Allied POW camp.  Many film critics agree that The Last American Hero (1973), a docudrama featuring Jeff Bridges as the legendary stock-car-racer Junior Johnson (though Bridges’ character in the film goes by “Junior” Jackson), represents the director’s finest achievement on the silver screen…eclipsing other Johnson-directed efforts such as A Gunfight (1971), You’ll Like My Mother (1972), and One on One (1977).

thatcertainsummerLamont Johnson received the first of his eleven Emmy Award nominations in 1970 for My Sweet Charlie—a controversial telemovie for its time, with an interracial romance at the center of its plot.  Lamont had to settle for a Directors’ Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement for that project, which he shared with assistant director Ralph Ferrin.  Johnson courted controversy again three years later with That Certain Summer, the first TV-movie to tackle the taboo subject of homosexuality—and was again nominated for an Emmy, but lost (though he added a third DGA trophy).  Lamont’s other Emmy-nominated telefilms include The Execution of Private Slovik (1974—the story of the only American soldier executed for treason since the Civil War), Ernie Kovacs: Behind the Laughter (1981), and The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990).  Johnson’s direction of 1975’s Fear on Trial, adapted from John Henry Faulk’s autobiography about his experiences on the blacklist, was also nominated for an Emmy…and had great verisimilitude for the director, who once found his name on such a list.

19576“Projects about human problems, about the testing of the human experience, about the pressures which exist upon human beings in a difficult world, are what really involve me,” Lamont Johnson was once quoted as saying. “The traps people get into and have to battle out of are the elements of drama with which I like to deal.”  Johnson left this world for a better one in 2010, but his radio legacy is well preserved by Radio Spirits in the following collections: Broadway’s My Beat: Great White Way, Broadway’s My Beat: Murder, Broadway’s My Beat: Neon Shoals, Crime Classics, Crime Classics: The Hyland Files, Defense Attorney, The Man From Homicide, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, The Six-Shooter: Gray Steel, and The Six-Shooter: Special Edition.  Happy birthday to the multi-faceted Lamont Johnson!

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