October 26, 2010

Emmy-Winning Director Lamont Johnson Dies at 88

A master at handling challenging subject matter with sensitivity, Johnson excelled in the genres of made-for-television movies and miniseries.

Lamont Johnson, an Primetime Emmy-winning director known for his graceful handling of television movies and miniseries that frequently dealt with sensitive or controversial subject matter, died on October 25, 2010, at his home in Monterey, California. He was 88.

According to news reports, the cause was congestive heart failure.

Johnson, who worked in theater and feature films as well as television, earned 11 Primetime Emmys nominations and won two — in 1985, for the miniseries Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story, and in 1988, for the miniseries Lincoln.

His acclaimed television credits included My Sweet Charlie, about an interracial romance; That Certain Summer, about a son who discovers that his father is gay; Crisis at Central High, set amid the civil-rights movement; Fear on Trial, about blacklisting; and The Execution of Private Slovik, the fact-based story of a World War II Army private executed for desertion.

His feature films included The Last American Hero, which starred Jeff Bridges as real-life stock car driver Junior Johnson.

Ernest Lamont Johnson, Jr., was born September 30, 1922, in Stockton, California. He grew up in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College, where he performed in radio dramas. He also studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and worked as an announcer on local radio. He attended UCLA in the early 1940s before World War II.

Health issues prevented him from military service. Instead, he joined the USO and performed for Allied troops in Europe during the war. He married USO actress Toni Merrill, whom he had met at Pasadena City College, in Paris in 1945.

After the war, Johnson resumed radio work, and in 1951 he played the title role of Tarzan in a popular syndicated series. He also began directing plays in Southern California.

His first television credit came in 1955 with an episode of Matinee Theatre, on which he also appeared as an actor. He also directed episodes of such series as Have Gun — Will Travel, Peter Gunn, Naked City, The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone and The Name of the Game before devoting himself primarily to made-for-television movies and miniseries. His final credit came in 2000, when he directed an episode of the series Felicity.

He is survived by a son, a daughter, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

On June 10, 2003, Lamont Johnson had the distinction of being interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. During the interview, conducted by the director of the Archive, Karen Herman, Johnson described his work as an actor in network radio, which led to a career as an actor in television on such series as Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s.

Johnson also discussed his period of being blacklisted from the industry, until producer Albert McCleery cast him. Johnson spoke in great detail about the ambitious, daily, color “live” NBC television series Matinee Theater (1955-58), for which he appeared as an actor and directed dozens of productions.

In addition, he discussed his direction of such series as Peter Gunn, Naked City, Dr. Kildare, Profiles in Courage and The Twilight Zone (for which he directed such classic episodes as “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”).

Johnson then described his later work on the groundbreaking Levinson and Link television movies My Sweet Charlie (1970), That Certain Summer (1972) and The Execution of Private Slovik (1974); as well as the miniseries Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988), both of which garnered Johnson Primetime Emmy Awards for directing.

The entire interview is available online here.

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