Kenneth Johnson’s legacy will always be that of a man who created some of the best entertainment in history, specifically the smash hits “V”, “The Bionic Woman” and “The Incredible Hulk”. Johnson’s attention to detail and propensity for blending science fiction with humanity sets him apart from the rest in the field of creativity, something he’s been doing since he was a teen.
“I was inspired by working in the theater,” Johnson stated. “When I was in the 8th grade I saved up my money and purchased a tape recorder and ended up recording a version of Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast from 1939 with my friends. I became known in the school as the ‘drama guy’ – and in 10th grade they asked me to play Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. By the end of that performance I discovered the theater needed to be my home. I did some acting and directing in high school – studied at Catholic University in the drama department while still in school – and then went to Carnegie Mellon University – which back then was Carnegie Tech.”
While at Carnegie Tech, Johnson ran a film society with Bill Pence (creator of the Telluride Film Festival) – which enabled him to see close to 500 of the the greatest movies ever made. The experience only heightened Johnson’s love for his craft.
“It was way more cinema than I had ever been exposed to as a kid,” Johnson explained. “I realized I had this great theater training coming out of Carnegie Tech – and knew how to work with actors – but I also had cinema tech training and could have a much larger proscenium if I used the world rather than just being limited to the proscenium arch of the stage.”
Johnson first branched out when he worked on “The Six Million Dollar Man”, which led to his creating “The Bionic Woman”. With those successes, Johnson quickly cemented his place as one of the great science fiction developers of our time – a distinction he didn’t necessarily plan for at the beginning of his career.
“It’s funny how you fall into things,” Johnson joked. “A lot of the work I have done in Sci-Fi has benefitted from my education in the classics. My own interests have always been much more eclectic than just the pigeonhole of Sci-Fi. I was trained in all the classic theater from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Shakespeare and always intended to have a much more eclectic career. However, I always warn my students in filmmaking classes, ‘Be careful what your first success is, because that’s what Hollywood will want you to do for the rest of your career.’ You create ‘The Bionic Woman’ and suddenly you’re the big superhero producer and they ask you to do one of the Marvel Comic superheroes – which I wanted to turn down because I didn’t want to deal with spandex and primary colors.”
Johnson continued, “But, my wife, Susie, had given me a book I had never read – ‘Les Misérables’, and you have Jean Valjean, the hero, fleeing from the intrepid Inspector Javert, who was relentlessly pursuing him – so I had the fugitive concept in my head. I realized maybe there was a way to take a little bit of Victor Hugo, a little bit of Robert Louis Stevenson (Jekyll and Hyde) and turn this ludicrous thing, ‘The Incredible Hulk’, into an adult drama based on the Greek concept of hubris – where the hero messes with things better left to the gods and brings this curse upon himself. I think that was the fun in working in speculative fiction – you’re in worlds slightly beyond reality. Myths have a way of getting inside people and grabbing an audience.”
“The Incredible Hulk” became a television classic, and Johnson is not lost as to why it resonated then and continues to strike chords today. “It became successful because of the humanity we managed to breathe into it,” Johnson explained. “Bix (Bill Bixby) was a major point of the success because we were always trying to write pieces that would expose the emotional aspects of Dr. Banner and the people he encountered. Thematically we were working trying to explore other people’s demons – alcoholism, child abuse, greed and lust. Each one of our episodes had an underlying theme. At the beginning, the kids tuned in to see big green guy crash through walls, but then parents realized, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something going on here, there’s some depth to this.’ The largest segment of our audience was adult women, then men and then teens and kids. CBS was thrilled – it was the perfect demographic.”
“Hulk” enthralled viewers for five seasons on CBS, but Johnson and many fans found heartache when CBS axed the series while it was still extremely popular. “It was canceled stupid and summarily by Harvey Shephard,” Johnson remembered. “Harvey was a guy that ran CBS for unfortunately the wrong 20 minutes – and he wasn’t there long – part of the reason being he canceled the show, among many others that had more life in them. It was frustrating because we still had six episodes in the can that had not aired.”
One episode “Hulk” fans may hate to hear was scrapped was the continuation of a character viewers had already seen before. “I had a season opener that I wanted to do about Dr. Banner’s sister – whom we had established in earlier episodes – dying of a congenital blood disease, and the only thing that could save her was a transfusion from a sibling,” Johnson said. “So we faced what would happen if that blood got into somebody else. I wasn’t talking about doing a ‘bra-popping’ She-Hulk, but I said, ‘I will give you a woman who we already care about who goes CRAZY!’ It would put Banner is an extraordinarily tight corner on all kinds of levels. Harvey didn’t want to do it and so we never had time to wrap it up(The series) because we never anticipated the show being canceled. I had always envisioned an ending that would be psychologically rewarding to Banner, to McGee and to the following that had walked down many roads with David Banner. It was disappointing to not be able to bring it full circle.”
Another letdown for Johnson has been the movie versions of the Hulk – with each missing the mark in his eyes. “The movies don’t work,” Johnson stated. “I have tremendous respect for Ang Lee and his work – but after the premiere, one of the critic-types came up to me and whispered, ‘Mr. Johnson, don’t make me Ang Lee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee.’ It was just so awful. I was amazed when they did another one. Ed Norton and Louis Leterrier were trying to get back into the feelings and Ed’s a good writer too – so I had hope – and then I saw the trailer. For about the first two-thirds of the trailer it was great and a lot more of what I had in mind and suddenly this big green hand came bursting up out of the concrete in CGI and that was it for me. I look at it like this: if you were watching a Shrek movie and suddenly there was a real human being in that movie – your brain disconnects. And I think that’s why the big CGI stuff doesn’t work in the movies of The Hulk character. I thought Joss Whedon did a good job integrating him with ‘The Avengers’, partly because he’s only in the movie twice. I was stunned when Joss threw the whole canon out the window by having the Hulk say, ‘I can always turn into the Hulk because I’m always angry.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute…no, no, no. I was startled.’ I don’t think they can pull it off on TV because you need a real guy there. It just doesn’t work with CGI.”
Avoiding CGI and special effects is all part of the process for Johnson, who’s next success was the television mini-series, “V” – the highest-rated science fiction program in the history of television. Johnson’s unique approach played a major role in that success. “The big failure in so much science fiction is that people get caught up in the effects and blowing things up and the spaceships flying around and they don’t recognize there’s deeper stuff to be mined,” he stated. “I’ve always been more interested in relationships and characters and emotion – the character-based approach to drama. ‘V’ was never about those things. ‘V’ was about power – an enormous hyper-power making itself present in our lives and how ordinary people would react to that – not generals and presidents – but a neighborhood. When we finally sat as a group for the first assembly of the film there were no special effects in it. There were no space ships, no matte paintings, no lasers, no explosions – none of that stuff. It was just the actors working – and the drama was so strong and the performances were so profound, that I knew we had something potent because all the rest of it was window dressing. ‘V’ is the work I am the proudest of, however, because it came entirely from my own little pea brain.”
While he is quick to crack a joke about himself, Johnson is very protective of “V”, so much so that he is determined to find financing to produce the movie as an independent film. “I own and control the motion picture rights to ‘V’,” Johnson explained. “When word got out about that, I suddenly had a lot of new best friends. We’ve had a lot of meetings with all of the major studios, and they all wanted to buy the rights for an obscene amount of money. But, I really feared losing the rights and couldn’t be assured I would end up in the director’s chair and was really worried about the same thing happening that I had seen with ‘Hulk’ and again with ‘The Bionic Woman’ when they tried remaking that and I just said, ‘No.’ Of course, when you say that in Hollywood, they come back and say, ‘We understand. How much do you really want?’ It’s not about the money. It’s about the quality of the piece. So for the last year-and-a-half we have been trying to set ‘V’ up as an independent picture with a budget of about $60 million, which is very expensive for an independent picture – but it’s what we need to do it correctly – so I can direct it and protect it and be sure the quality is what the quality was when we started out. We know there’s an audience out there for ‘V’.”
Johnson’s success hasn’t been limited to just television, as he also wrote the third installment of “The Mighty Ducks” franchise, “D3”, and the wildly underrated “Short Circuit 2”, his first foray into filmmaking and one that still affects him today.
“My friend, Jeff Sagansky, who had been a vice president at NBC when I did ‘V’, and also went on to head Tri Star Pictures sent me the script for ‘Short Circuit 2’, and I initially said ‘Jeff, I don’t want my first movie to have a number after and the end of it,’”Johnson explained. “I kept on saying no, and Jeff said, ‘What’s wrong, why won’t you do it?’ I told him, ‘They’re using their leading character as a prop to do jokes off of. What you’ve got here is ‘The Elephant Man’. Jeff said ‘What are you talking about, it’s a movie about a robot.’ I remember telling him, ‘Like The Elephant Man and Quasimodo, there’s a pure soul burning inside but people can’t get past the surface – they see a stereotype. They couldn’t see the humanity on the inside.’ And I told him to let me mine the script and I won’t lose any of the humor or the sight-gags or the fun, but we’ll end up with a movie that will have people crying as well as laughing.’ And that’s what we did. There are some wonderfully poignant scenes where the three puppeteers brought Johnny to life – but when the movie was over, Johnny was gone. I could still talk to all the other people I worked with on the picture, but Johnny was a combination of all their talents. It was as though Johnny had died. I actually went through a period of mourning after the movie because he had been brought to such life that it was like losing a friend. It was powerful. I actually went to see Eric Allard (Johnny 5’s creator) one day at his shop and in the corner of my eye I caught sight of Johnny standing there – it was like going to a funeral. I couldn’t look. It was a very interesting feeling.”
Interesting doesn’t begin to describe Johnson’s “Alien Nation”, a series created for Fox in 1989 that was unceremoniously scrapped in one of the biggest blunders of recent television memory.
“When we first heard from Peter Chernin at Fox Television that they couldn’t fit us on the schedule I told him it was a big mistake – and he agreed,” Johnson recalled. “We had opened Monday night for them. They were just beginning the network and we got bigger numbers than they ever expected but Barry (Diller) got greedy and pulled us for comedies. We were stunned. It was like hearing about a friend passing away in an accident – you never had time to say goodbye. We were heartbroken. Fast-forward a year, and Fox’s comedies had tanked so bad they had to give Monday night back to the affiliates. Peter got up in front of the Television Critics Association and apologized and said canceling ‘Alien Nation’ was the biggest mistake they ever made.”
The mistake, however, was corrected with Johnson’s persistence.
“We did a TV movie that ended up being the highest-rated TV movie for Fox, and they were inspired so we did four more,” Johnson said. “It was like a gift from the gods – we got to go back and play in the sandbox together again. It was such a deep, funny and insightful show that when Fox asked to first take a look at the movie it was based on I was tired of being the ‘alien guy.’ But I looked at it and there was once scene where the alien cop waves goodbye to his family and I said, ‘Whoa. Who are they? What’s it like to be them?’ So I went back to Fox and said, ‘You think you’ve got ‘Lethal Weapon’ with aliens, right?’ And they said ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And I said ‘No. What you’ve got here is ‘In the Heat of the Night’. Let me do a piece about intolerance, prejudice and discrimination – and they let me do it. Every minority in the country thought it was about them. We got awards from the Hispanic community, the Asian community, the Gay and Lesbian community – it was fabulous. The New York Board of Jewish Education asked us to send them copies of every episode they could use in their school system in New York and New Jersey – 400+ schools as teaching aides. For me, that was the best. I had been raised in a very anti-Semitic household as a child – I never bought into it. One of the things I have tried to do in my career is chip away at that where I could and ‘Alien Nation’ was the prime way to to that. It was the project I had the most fun on. If you look at the DVD set and ‘The Family Gathering’, where I invited the whole cast to sit in my living room and just reminisce about our times doing ‘Alien Nation’, you get a sense of what it was like for us to work together – we never stopped laughing! ‘Alien Nation’ was hands down the most fun.”
Even today, Johnson finds himself updating his website with “Newcomer” names – something that has remained a long-running family experience. “My daughters and I still collect Newcomer names to this day,” Johnson laughed. “You can see right on my website – they just don’t stop coming in and it’s very funny.”
Kenneth Johnson also is passionately dedicated to his fans, as he answers emails from around the globe from people who love his work. “I am certainly appreciative of people who think I have somehow become one of the torchbearers of Sci-Fi,” Johnson said. “It’s always amused me that it came from a desire to illuminate character and create relationships and emotional situations. I write pieces that work for me – I have never pandered to a specific group – and it’s rewarding that it connects to such wide audiences.”