Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lamont Johnson, 1922-2010

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.


Blake L. said...

Maybe you should break that rule about commemorative pieces more often. Who has written an obituary that had as much sense of Johnson's career as this shows?

I personally don't think the death of someone at 88 is as sorrowful as someone of talent being ill-remembered, their credits just titles rambled off without feeling (and the L.A. Times, for example, notoriously is careless about which credits are there at all--for example, with Jill Clayburgh, they left out "Luna" which many would argue was her best movie), which happens all too often. For me, it's an appropriate time to remember and to see someone remembered for what they gave to a medium I Love.

Well, anyway you write a nice appreciation, nothing pale about it but no weeping and wailing either.
After all, since it's not a movie, we don't need to just stoically say "Who's Lamont?"

Dan Sallitt said...

The fog came in, a tree got in the way... Sarris once speculated that Johnson might be the new Hawks: you can't push the comparison too far, but there's something a bit Hawksian about the low-key way Johnson handles big dramatic or action moments.

La Luna was not at all well liked when it came out, so I'm not too surprised it's missing from Clayburgh tributes. I'd agree that it's her best, though - perhaps along with The Terminal Man, but she was still a supporting player at that point.

I failed to mention one Johnson movie that some fans regard very highly: 1974's Visit to a Chief's Son, a very modest theatrical film that he made after The Last American Hero, about the contact between an anthropologist's son and an African tribe. It was the last of the eccentric little features that Johnson strung together in the early 70s - his next theatrical film, 1976's unsatisfactory Lipstick, clearly marks the entrance to a less congenial phase of Johnson's career.

Marisa said...

I'm one of Lamont's granddaughters and just wanted to thank you for writing this piece. It is meaningful to see him remembered for his talent and the soft but powerful touch he had.

He was proud of and loved many of the movies you highlighted. Wallenberg was one of his favorites (that I didn't see mentioned in your piece). He actually recently told me to skip watching Kona Coast. And he regretted Lipstick.

He chose stories about characters who had impossible odds or faced enormous choices and I think it was because he inherently understood their struggles in real life and as an actor. He was in a cast as a child for many years when he contracted TB in his hip bone which eventually crippled him and his acting career but killed neither. He managed to break through in radio and stage before settling on directing and in those early years ran with an amazing crowd from Gertrude Stein to Buckminster Fuller.

I'd like to add that he was a person who never stopped learning, embraced change even in his later years and was always seeking to be better. He was probably a pain in the ass to work for at times but he got great results :). Beyond his deep and broad body of work, he was a foul mouthed, deep voiced, passionate and fascinating human being. Our family is heart broken at his loss even though we rightfully celebrate his incredible life. Thank you for paying homage to his work.

Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks so much for writing, Marisa. I met your grandfather once, when he was doing a play (I think) in the UCLA Theater Arts dept. in the late 70s, and I was in the film school. I found him in his office and went full geek, telling him film by film how much I liked his work. He was quite nice to me, though I may have been interrupting him.

Wallenberg wasn't one of my favorites at the time, but it's been a while since I've seen most of your grandfather's films - it would be nice to get the chance to go back and reevaluate. Sadly, those TV movies don't screen much - too bad, given how many people saw them at the time.

I'm very sorry for your loss.

combrm said...

A heartfelt and insightful piece,

I hope fans of Mr. Johnson will check out my tribute linked above.
Bruce Marshal
San Francisco, CA

Dan Sallitt said...

Very nice tribute, Bruce.

Paul LaMastra said...

was fortunate enough to edit 4 telefilms for Lamont. DAMN! he was a gr888 director and treasure friend. just found out this evening of his passing, so tears are flowing.

i remember hugging and crying in the Technicolor parking lot at Wallenberg's end. it was a labor of love for both of us and i didn't want it to end after 9 months of total immersion.

next time we spoke was after the Emmy awards the following year. we were both honoroed; but the tech awards came earlier. his message cracked me up: "congrats Paolo, i hear you gave an acceptance speech longer than Greer Garson's for MRS MINIVER."

when NBC for it's own selfish reasons destroyed UNNATURAL CAUSES (Alfre Woodard, John Ritter, he was impeccably cavelier, just saying: "don't cry, it's still a fine film." to which i added: "but never to be a classic."

his tales were many. but one in particular about acting with Ethel Barrymore, in her cups, with him delivering her lines and Ethel simply saying: "tell me morrrrre," would provoke mass hysteria.

i could go on & on. oh, how i miss him. GOD THREW AWAY THE MOLD AFTER HE WAS CREATED. they don't come any finer.

Marisa, if you want more gr888 stories about your grandad, call me, i'm listed in the L.A. directory.

Paul LaMastra, A.C.E.

Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for writing, Paul. Seems as if you worked with quite a few of the TV directors that I mentioned at the end of that piece. I'd be curious what happened to Unnatural Causes, if you'd like to tell. I remember liking it, though perhaps not as much as some of his other work.

I don't know if Marisa will read this page, but I might be able to find her on Facebook if you want to contact her.