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Quotable Notables:  EXTRA! Inspiration

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Stardust Inspiration:  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

Will I 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 golden Emmys.

He scoots a black cat out the door and launches in about his life as a film and TV director, actor, producer, writer and teacher.

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.”

Q: 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 happened.

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 started.

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.”

 

 

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