Some of America’s best directors (Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and many more) got their start on the small screen, grinding it out on minimal money and for even more minimal fanfare, receiving rare acknowledgment for their work, but also giving themselves a grounding in the essentials of filmmaking. Though the work of Lamont Johnson never hit the heights of the aforementioned titans, this thoughtful, intelligent director boasts a rich body of work dotted with truly top-tier but sadly under-celebrated gems. “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,” Johnson once said. “The traps people get into and have to battle out of are the elements of drama with which I like to deal.”
Beginning his career as an actor, Johnson eventually turned director and then worked on just about every TV show in American history (from Peter Gunn and The Rifleman to Dr. Kildare and The Twilight Zone), and continued to craft solid fare for the small screen all through his career, even after he’d made his mark cinematically. Though a sadly maligned art form, Johnson excelled in the admittedly uneven field of television films, directing a raft of forgettable titles, but also – with the exceptional likes of My Sweet Charlie (1970), The Execution Of Private Slovik (1974), Fear On Trial (1975), Crisis At Central High (1981), Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Unnatural Causes (1986) – helming some of the best entries that this modest medium has had to offer.
Dealing effectively with historical stories and “issue based” drama in his television work, Johnson exhibited a far looser and more freewheeling feel with his feature film output. Though his first two films (1968’s Kona Coast and 1970’s The Mackenzie Break) were fairly standard in their outlook, 1971’s western A Gunfight indicated Johnson’s future brand of down-home eccentricity, with Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash kicking and roaring as two ageing gunslingers who sell tickets to their final showdown. Johnson delivered a fine paranoid thriller (1972’s The Groundstar Conspiracy) and a creepy horror flick (1972’s You’ll Like My Mother) before hitting his career peak with 1973’s good ol’ boy near-masterpiece The Last American Hero. Starring the brilliant Jeff Bridges as a moonshiner turned NASCAR champion, this rollicking, moving and wildly entertaining charmer is one of the best sports movies of the 1970s, and should have been as big as Rocky.
After 1974’s earnest African-set drama Visit To A Chief’s Son, Johnson directed his strangest and most controversial film with 1976’s Lipstick, a truly odd entry in the already problematic rape revenge genre. Marking the double debuts of sisters Margaux and Mariel Hemingway (the granddaughters of the great Ernest Hemingway), Lipstick features them both being horribly raped by Chris Sarandon’s predatory music teacher, leading to eventual retribution-by-rifle. Garish and ugly, the film (which is set in the glitzy, sexualised world of high fashion modelling) was pilloried for its lengthy rape scenes and also flopped at the box office. While Johnson argued that the protracted scenes were designed to make the audience feel the pain of the film’s characters during their shattering ordeals, his career was irrevocably damaged by this major misfire.
Johnson almost appeared to engage in a little cinematic penance with his next film. After the out-of-character jarring, ugly imagery and exploitative beats of Lipstick, the director went wonderfully down-home with 1977’s warm hearted One On One, in which talented 1970s teen heartthrob Robby Benson (remember him?) excels as a small-town basketball star struggling to deal with college life. Johnson reunited with Jeff Bridges (who had wisely bowed out of Lipstick due to concerns with the subject matter) for 1978’s Somebody Killed Her Husband, an interesting but ultimately disappointing black comedy co-starring Charlie’s Angels megastar Farrah Fawcett-Majors in her big screen debut. Far better was Johnson’s next film, 1981’s Cattle Annie And Little Britches. Featuring the big screen debut of true original Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) and a typically winning turn from Diane Lane, this gritty, idiosyncratic little western follows two runaway teenage girls who hook up with the notorious but way-past-their-prime Doolin-Dalton gang, led by the magisterial Burt Lancaster. Though barely released, Cattle Annie And Little Britches is charm personified, and stands as one of Johnson’s best.
While Johnson continued to direct high profile, Emmy-winning television films and mini-series up until 2000 (“I find a great many things that never make it to the big screen, because they’re controversial, wind up on television, and done with a considerable amount of daring,” he told The Miami Herald in 1992. “That seems surprising in a medium that’s supposed to be timid or anxious”), his final feature film is a true anomaly on his already diverse resume. 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone is a goofy science fiction actioner starring Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald which formed part of the barely remembered early 1980s charge to reintroduce 3D technology to unsuspecting audiences. It’s entertaining stuff, but Johnson’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in it.
Passing away at the age of 88 in 2010, Lamont Johnson left behind a rich collection of big screen films that are currently in desperate need of rediscovery. Most of the obituaries that surfaced for the director referred almost solely to his TV work (The LA Times said that Johnson was “best known for his sensitive treatment of controversial subjects in made-for-TV movies”), tragically glossing over a wonderfully wide ranging, occasionally daring, and always entertaining filmography. “I think the most important centre for me has been to be able to do work about things that mattered,” Johnson once said. “Things that had something to do with the real world, that bring the crisis in somebody’s life where they make a fateful choice. Sometimes a fatal choice.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Stewart Raffill and Tamara Jenkins. For much, much more on Lamont Johnson, check out his epic video interview with The Television Academy Foundation.