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With his unique, often literary take on popular genre material, writer-producer-director Kenneth Johnson became one of the more successful players in the television industry during the 1970s and 1980s. A story contribution to the hit adventure series "The Six Million Dollar Man" (ABC, 1974-78) for producer Harve Bennett led to Johnson helming the nearly as popular spin-off "The Bionic Woman" (ABC/NBC, 1976-78). Having gained a solid reputation for handling fare of a fantastic nature, he was next tasked with taking "The Incredible Hulk," (CBS, 1978-1982) from the pages of Marvel Comics to the TV screen. The show proved another smashing success for Johnson, whose original idea for the allegorical alien invasion saga "V" (NBC, 1982) became one of the biggest ratings winners of the season. He approached similar material, albeit with a different theme, for the TV adaptation of "Alien Nation" (Fox, 1989-1990), another solid performer that was unfortunately doomed by the financial difficulties of its fledgling home network. In addition to several later "Alien Nation" made-for-TV films, the veteran storyteller also wrote and directed the contemporized "Sherlock Holmes Returns" (CBS, 1993) and the Shaquille O'Neal superhero adventure "Steel" (1997). For an entire generation of fans, Johnson remained the man responsible for some of the most exciting television adventures of their childhood.
Kenneth Johnson was born on Oct. 26, 1942 in Pine Bluff, AK. Upon graduating high school, he followed his lifelong appreciation of the creative arts by enrolling as a classical theater major at Carnegie Mellon University. During his time at there, Johnson broadened his interest to film, organizing a film society on his campus and at neighboring universities, where he shared his love of the medium with other like-minded types. After earning his degree in 1964, Johnson moved first to New York City, where he worked in theater as a director and producer on "The Mike Douglas Show" (syndicated, 1961-1981) before making the jump to Hollywood in 1970. Johnson made his film debut as the producer-director of "An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe" (1970) - in which a costumed Vincent Price delivered dramatic readings of four tales by the master of the macabre - but other than this, little in the way of future opportunities presented themselves to the aspiring director. It was at the suggestion of Stephen Bochco, an old college friend who had already made inroads into the television industry, that Johnson first considered writing original material for television, as Bochco advised him that writing as well as directing was the only sure way to control his creative vision. After a bit of prompting, Johnson not only discovered a facility for screenwriting, but an ear for dialogue and the ability to work fast.
Thinking that Johnson and another colleague shared similar sensibilities, Bochco introduced his friend to renowned television producer Harve Bennett, who was overseeing the first season of "The Six Million Dollar Man" (ABC, 1974-78). A massive ratings success, the sci-fi adventure starring Lee Majors had become a true pop cultural phenomenon, but as the second season approached, Bennett found himself in need of fresh ideas. Impressed by an unproduced film script Johnson had written, Bennett asked him if he had any ideas for "The Six Million Dollar Man." Being a fan of the classics, Johnson immediately connected the character of Steve Austin with the idea of a modern day Frankenstein's monster and suggested that they give the creature a bride. Bennett loved the idea so much that he immediately asked Johnson to script the episode. The two-part installment introduced the world to Jaime Sommers (Lindsey Wagner), a tennis star and the former love of Steve Austin, who after a disastrous skydiving accident was "rebuilt" with bionic prosthetic limbs similar to his and enlisted to work as a government agent. A massive ratings hit for the already popular show, it prompted the network to order a spin-off series, with Johnson at the wheel.
Asked to produce "The Bionic Woman" (ABC/NBC, 1976-78), Johnson was again reluctant and it was once more Bochco who changed his mind by informing Johnson that as the show's producer, he would be the one to hire the writers. The enlightened Johnson accepted the producer's position and hired himself to pen the early episodes. Wagner became a major star on the show, which topped the ratings for much of its three seasons and prompted several tie-in episodes with "Six Million Dollar Man," which Johnson frequently wrote and produced. In 1977, Frank Price, the then-head of television at Universal, offered to let Johnson have his pick from several Marvel Comics characters the company was trying to develop. In an all too familiar scene, Johnson at first demurred, until he later became inspired while re-reading Victor Hugo's tale of persecution and redemption, Les Miserables. The result was a pilot movie that quickly became the popular superhero adventure series "The Incredible Hulk," (CBS, 1978-1982). Starring revered TV veteran Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner and former Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno as his monstrous green-skinned alter ego, the show followed Banner's lonely travels as he attempted to find a cure for the beast within him, all the while wanted for a murder he did not commit. Under Johnson's supervision, the show deviated from the original property in ways designed to make it more accessible to a broader television audience, unfamiliar with the Marvel universe. His instincts proved correct once again, as the show enjoyed a robust five-season run, in addition to three made-for-TV films after its cancelation.
After producing, writing and directing the teen comedy romp "Senior Trip" (CBS, 1981) and wrapping regular production on "Hulk," Johnson move to Warner Bros., where he wrote, produced and directed "V" (NBC, 1982), a sci-fi allegory for Nazism in which an outwardly benevolent alien race is ultimately revealed to be a bloodthirsty lizard legion, intent on brutal world domination. The two-part miniseries became one of the network's biggest ratings hits in years and quickly spawned a sequel, "V: The Final Battle" (NBC, 1983). Unfortunately, disagreements over the second miniseries' direction led to Johnson leaving the production; a short-lived series based on the property went forward without his input - much to its detriment. After directing the sci-fi comedy feature "Short Circuit 2" (1988), Johnson was approached to adapt another series, this time based on the sci-fi crime-drama "Alien Nation" (1988), starring James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. Although the network had been looking for a sci-fi version of "Lethal Weapon" (1987), Johnson convinced them to let him take the show in another direction, using the fantastical plot to explore themes of race relations, bigotry and social tolerance. Although "Alien Nation" (Fox, 1989-1990) performed well in the ratings, the young and financially struggling Fox canceled the show after one season.
Stung by the demise of "Alien Nation," for which many planned storylines had gone unexplored, Johnson turned his energies to producing, writing and directing "Sherlock Holmes Returns" (CBS, 1993). Anthony Higgins starred as the fictional sleuth, who is revived from suspended animation to find himself in modern day San Francisco, where he must match his wits with the descendants of his old arch nemesis, Moriarty. Four years after its cancellation, Johnson and his team were at last able to tell the tales they had mapped out for the show with "Alien Nation: Dark Horizon" (Fox, 1994) and four other follow-up films. The telefilmmaker took another stab at features with "Steel" (1997), starring NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal as an armored superhero. Based on a character introduced in the pages of Superman, Johnson again distanced his movie from its graphic novel source material, although theater audiences were far less receptive to his latest foray into the superhero realm. Two years later he directed the kiddie sci-fi comedy "Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century" (Disney Channel, 1999), as well as several episodes of the time travel adventure "Seven Days" (UPN, 1998-2001) and the military legal drama, "JAG" (NBC, 1995-2005). While still actively working on developing new projects, Johnson also became a favorite on the lecture circuit and taught courses on television at UCLA and USC in the new millennium. He had no direct involvement, however, with "Bionic Woman" (NBC, 2007) or "V" (ABC, 2009-2011), two short-lived reboots of his earlier creations, which he went on record as saying had completely missed the tone and intent of his originals.
By Bryce Coleman
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