The chest-thumping voice of Tarzan was a shy voice at first.
Lamont Johnson was an invalid in childhood and struggled to
overcome his shyness. He succeeded, and became an actor and
Emmy-winning director who worked with a constellation of stars.
Once blacklisted, the producer, writer and teacher said physical
challenges have played a part in his life, but not deterred him
from his aspirations.
Lamont Johnson: the Voice of Tarzan
need earplugs when Lamont Johnson does the voice of Tarzan, as
he did for the original radio show? He says no, that he’d need
to practice first. But he belts out a long arcing yell, “Ah-h-h
eyah eyah, eyah eya-a-ah!”
We sit in his Monterey home office, crowded with awards, photos
of him with presidents and movie stars and crowned by one of his
He scoots a black cat out the door and launches in about his
life as a film and TV director, actor, producer, writer and
He has worked with all the Barrymores and directed Molly
Ringwald, Ann Bancroft, Robert Redford, Burt Lancaster, Johnny
Cash, Patty Duke, Kirk Douglas, Gene Hackman, Jeff Goldblum,
Joanne Woodward and many more. Last year, he was honored for
directing 12 of the original “Twilight Zone” series.
The Stockton, California-born 78-year-old is now working on
three documentaries, and the phone rings wildly as he manages
this interview and business transactions.
“My life is a constant rollercoaster,” he says. “There are hot,
lively spells and valleys. But I have no idea to slow down.”
A little history and what motivated your career?
A: I was an invalid till age 10. I had TB of the hip. I had home
teachers and was so shy. But I had this voice as a youngster, so
I got leads in plays and became the campus star. It encouraged
me to come out of my shell. It took quite a few years of
psychoanalysis to get me to come out . . . I was a disc jockey
and worked my way through UCLA with a major in English. Dad was
terrified when I left in my fourth year and went to act. He was
in real estate and said, “When you get tired, ‘Johnson Brothers’
is waiting to put ‘Johnson and Son’ on the bottom.”
Q: What hardships did you suffer throughout your career?
A: Mainly to overcome being a disabled kid with a limp. Radio
was the perfect thing for my foghorn voice. But stage and films
. . . I was very proud of the fact I could disguise my limp, but
it was always a problem. I played a tough Marine once and I
worked like a son-of-a-gun to cover my limp. We were shooting at
Camp Pendleton with real Marines. But, being pulled onto a
weapons carrier truck, I stumbled and the director noticed.
Q: What was it like receiving your Emmys?
A: I was more moved by my five Directors’ Guild awards. To be
judged by film directors, my peers, it really broke me up. But I
was terribly excited about the Emmy I won for the TV movie
“Wallenberg,” with Richard Chamberlain in ’84. You’re so dazzled
and shaken by winning that everything sensible goes out of your
mind. I kept my speech to the 30 seconds, so a Time magazine
review said I gave the classiest speech at the Emmys . . .
Q: What star has most impressed you?
A: There’ve been far too many. For instance, I loved working
with Maureen Stapleton, Burt Lancaster - although we fought
bitterly - Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett . . . I’ve done three
films with Jeff Bridges. He’s always a friend, a dear guy, and a
total actor . . . I’m fondest of Bob Redford. I gave him his
first movie job in “Twilight Zone.” I’d seen him on live TV and
asked, “Who is that terrific blond kid?” He had no agent . . . I
directed a pilot film for Desilu Productions. I found Lucy was
such a noodge. She was an amazing, epic landmark in American TV,
but a pain in the ass as a producer.
Q: Talk about your radio daze.
A: I was very sick, in great pain with TB. When I was 5, dad
brought a little something in to amuse me. That was the first
radio, a little wireless set, crackling through the ether. It
brought things like Lindbergh landing in Paris.
Q: How were you affected during the “Commie behind every
bush” McCarthy era?
A: I was blacklisted. I had been a Communist when I was in
college. It was absolutely the only thing to do, having been
brought up in Pasadena in a very right-wing family. Within a few
months, I thought, “This is for the birds,” and I withdrew. But
I had a card and it got into a whole network of red channels. I
didn’t work for a year in the ‘50s. That’s why directing “Fear
on Trial” meant so much to me.
Q: Have we, as a nation, changed much?
A: We’re living in a good age, from the Berlin Wall coming down
to the changeover in Russia. When I was doing “Wallenberg,”
Slavs, Croatians, etc., all worked together.
Q: Earliest memories of TV and how it’s changed?
A: I used to love the Philco/Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One,
Playhouse 90. I saw them on TV before I acted on them and later
directed them . . . Occasionally, wonderful things happen on TV
now, but they don’t take nearly the chances they did on live. It
was more like a theater. You couldn’t turn back. I got to do my
first directing thing live. All kinds of obscene things
Q: Is it hard to turn down scripts?
A: I’ve had an agent for 20 years who knows what I like to do.
I’ve been fortunate to get good scripts, things about the crunch
in life . . . I did the first gay lovers in “That Certain
Summer” with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen. I love doing things
about danger zones or points of tension in our society.
Q: Have you been told you resemble John Steinbeck?
A: In Africa, I was always told I looked like Hemingway. I had a
white beard in 1974, and there are pictures of me with the Masai.
I was shooting a film.
Q: You have two children and three grandchildren. How did you
meet your wife, Toni?
A: We were married 55 years ago in Paris. We met when we were
both playing for the USO.
Q: What’s the biggest sin you’ve committed?
A: Oh, God! Do I have to tell? When I’ve been dishonest with
myself and other people. It hurts me and them.
Q: The greatest kindness?
A: I think I’ve learned, through the 120 years of my career, a
lot more patience and compassion for people I would have been
contemptuous about. I can’t say I’ve licked it. I still have a
lot of impatience.
Q: What’s in your future?
A: I’d like to do more Shakespeare, to act more . . . Also, I
love doing anything that encourages young artists getting
Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: Of course!
Universal Update: Johnson,
now 83, is still working on documentaries as he revealed in a
recent phone call. Not one to toot his own horn, he is also
busily writing his memoirs about other people he has worked
with. It’s called “Walking with Giants.”