I tend to avoid commemorative pieces: anything sorrowful one writes about a death seems pale. But Lamont Johnson, one of America's best directors, died a few weeks ago with little fanfare, and I wanted to talk him up a bit.
Johnson started as an actor, and had a large supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis's very good 1952 Korean War film Retreat, Hell!. As a director, he put in a decade or so of hard work on television series and specials before getting a few no-prestige theatrical features in the late 60s. If memory serves, Johnson's theatrical debut, 1967's A Covenant With Death, a cheap-looking suspense film with George Maharis and Red Line 7000's Laura Devon, was surprisingly good against all odds, taking its characters more seriously than the genre required. 1968's Kona Coast wasn't nearly as successful, but 1969 saw Johnson acquit himself well in the emerging TV-movie format with Deadlock, a Leslie Nielsen cop drama. By this point Johnson had arrived at something like his mature style, combining dramatic intensity with fast and informal performances that discharged rather than built up the drama.
1970 was an important year for Johnson, on both the TV and theatrical fronts. The TV movie was carving out its own audience, which gravitated to topical subject matter with prestige actors; and Johnson caught the wave with My Sweet Charlie, a strikingly good drama with a racially charged plot reminiscent of The Defiant Ones, and a star turn from Patty Duke. Emmys went to Duke and to writers Richard Levinson and William Link, who were to become the Aurenche and Bost of 70s TV drama; and Johnson was permanently established as an A-list TV director. A string of successes in that medium followed, including 1972's That Certain Summer and 1974's The Execution of Private Slovik, both written by Levinson/Link. Though Johnson's prestige TV dramas of the 70s are probably his best-known work, most of these efforts are handicapped by the form's ostentatious social relevance.
Like other prestige TV directors, Johnson couldn't get arrested in theatrical features. But, a few months after his TV score with Charlie, Johnson released the POW drama The McKenzie Break, a tense, memorable acting duel between Irish officer Brian Keith and German prisoner Helmut Griem. Cultivating an interest in extreme characters that suited his explosive yet swallowed-up style, Johnson churned out a number of strong films over the next few years: 1971's A Gunfight, with Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash; 1972's The Groundstar Conspiracy, with George Peppard as a charismatic American fascist; and 1973's The Last American Hero, a car-racing film with a potent Jeff Bridges performance. Few paid much attention, but Andrew Sarris put McKenzie, Groundstar, and American Hero on his runners-up lists, and a small, largely auteurist cult coalesced.
Johnson, and other filmmakers of the time who lacked clout, were clearly the beneficiary of the looseness of American film before the Tax Shelter Law of 1976, and as far as I know, he never made another theatrical film to equal McKenzie and American Hero. 1977's One on One with Robby Benson is the best of his later efforts; after 1983, he never tried his hand at theatrical again. TV movies were a different story, and Johnson continued to rack up Emmys and nominations into the 90s. Given an opening, Johnson never lost his ability to find unexpected excitement at the nexus of character and drama: for my money, the unheralded 1982 Dangerous Company with Beau Bridges stands with Charlie as Johnson's best work in the medium.
I lost track of Johnson's career after the effective, award-winning biopic Lincoln in 1988. He isn't the only good filmmaker whose reputation was written on the wind of the TV movie: perhaps someday we'll have the access and the interest to go back to the important TV work of John Korty, Joseph Sargent, Daniel Petrie, William Hale. I'm thinking Johnson may have been at the top of the pile, though.