Saturday, December 26, 2015

George Clayton Johnson, dead at 86

He was born in a barn, forced to repeat the sixth grade, dropped out of school during the eighth, watched his stories come to life on television and established what is probably the general rule of fantasy: "Fantasy must be about something, otherwise it's foolishness... ultimately it must be about human beings, it must be about the human condition." The man who defined THE TWILIGHT ZONE as "wisdom fiction" passed away on Christmas morning at the age of 86.
  
Robert Redford and George Clayton Johnson in 1960.

George Clayton Johnson was among the small handful of gifted -- and privileged -- to write teleplays for Rod Serling's classic television series, which aired over CBS from 1959 to 1964. Remember the episode about Jack Krugman and Jonathan Winters playing a game of pool... with a human life at the stakes? That was George Clayton Johnson. Remember the episode with Robert Redford as a young man harbored by an old lady, sheltered from fear of Mr. Death... only to turn out the young man was Death himself? That was George Clayton Johnson. Remember the episode about the old people who played a game of "Kick the Can" and became young again? The same story restaged for the 1983 motion picture? That was George Clayton Johnson.

The premiere episode of Star Trek: "Man Trap"
George got his start writing for THE TWILIGHT ZONE courtesy of Charles Beaumont, who taught the aspiring writer and how to script a teleplay. Beaumont did this on the sly, taking credit and pocketed some of the cash, but that did not bother George. Having THE TWILIGHT ZONE on his resume was one of the best things that could have happened to him. "He was a good friend and he inspired people to try harder," Johnson later recalled about Beaumont. In short time George was writing for HONEY WEST, KUNG FU, and what became the premiere episode of STAR TREK.

Ocean's Eleven (2001 version)
One of his stories was adapted into a motion-picture, OCEAN'S ELEVEN, starring Frank Sinatra, later remade as a hip and witty 2001 motion picture of the same name starring George Clooney. Johnson's characters would return for two additional sequels. 

Johnson and William F. Nolan collaborated for a 1967 novel, LOGAN'S RUN, which would also be adapted into a short-lived weekly TV series of the same name. He even tried his hand at acting in a Roger Corman film, THE INTRUDER (1961), and on a fourth season episode of SEA HUNT, playing the role of Lt. Hartwell. (How's that for obscure trivia?) George was so nervous during filming that he accidentally referred to his commander as captain, and confessed not wanting to appear in front of the camera again... which he avoided for a number of years.

During filming of "A Penny for Your Thoughts," one of Johnson's earliest contributions to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, he was invited to the set to watch the filming. "I introduced myself to James Sheldon. He was the director," Johnson recalled. "We talked a while and then Rod Serling comes on the set. He's leading a choir of on-lookers like a tour guide for visiting dignitaries and everyone on the set was electrified. No one dared to make a move while he was there. Then he sees me and Lola standing there, and he introduces me to the people, 'And this is George Clayton Johnson, the writer of this absolutely dandy film we are making right now.' And I am hearing my name and the praise. Then Serling introduces the director... but he introduced me first. I felt like a king."

I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with George Clayton Johnson at a convention some years back. He was impressed with some of the knowledge I had about THE TWILIGHT ZONE, based on the questions I asked him, and he ultimately agreed to write a foreword for my award-winning book about THE TWILIGHT ZONE. It was here that you could see, almost sixty years after THE TWILIGHT ZONE went off the air, that his creative juices were still flowing. His foreword was a letter addressed to the late Rod Serling, expressing his appreciation and admiration for the longevity of the television program. "What an astonishing shelf-life for a piece of television entertainment and a great testament to the timeless nature of the program and the quality production you brought to the project," George wrote to Serling.

Johnson was the second-to-last of the major contributors for THE TWILIGHT ZONE and it is with sadness that I report his passing earlier today. Earl Hamner Jr. is still with us. George Clayton Johnson is now reunited with his friends and I have no doubt that like the early sixties, he and Matheson and Beaumont and Bradbury and Serling and the rest are relaxing by the swimming pool concocting magnificent fantasies to keep us entertained for another millennia. 

1 comment:

Sandy Cain said...

Indeed, Johnson's passing does leave a hole. Like the socket of an extracted tooth, a raw wound where once was a member of a select few who not only entertained us, but constantly challenged us to stretch our beliefs. It won't/can't be too many more years before those few ARE joined by Hamner, and the guys sitting around the living water of Summerland's swimming pool will be privy to his folksy tales of mountain people. Thanks for helping me grow, all. You were, are, and will always be appreciated.

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