Third in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.
Accepting an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for The Twilight Zone in 1961, Rod Serling thanked the “three writing gremlins who did the bulk of the work: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson.” Born in a barn outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on July 10, 1929, Johnson has enriched the genre on both page and screen.
As an author, Johnson is best known for the classic 1967 novel Logan’s Run, written with William F. Nolan, which spawned an Academy Award-winning film in 1976, a CBS-TV series the following year, a Marvel comic book, and two sequels penned by Nolan. His stories have appeared in 100 Great Fantasy Stories, Author’s Choice #4, Masters of Darkness, and elsewhere.
Twilight Zone Scripts & Stories contains Johnson’s teleplays for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark,” and “Kick the Can,” plus stories adapted by others into episodes like “Execution” and “The Prime Mover.” His collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories includes scripts and treatments, some unproduced, as well as nonfiction.
Johnson has also written episodes of Honey West, Kentucky Jones, Kung Fu, The Law and Mr. Jones, Mr. Novak, and Route 66. He had hoped to launch a screenwriting career with Ocean’s Eleven (1960), until the script he wrote with Jack Golden Russell was bought “blind” as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” and heavily rewritten, earning them only a story credit.
Years later, he told this writer in an interview for Filmfax, “I was breaking into writing television, after having spent about five years digging dry holes in the desert, so to speak, not striking any water, and wondering what had happened to this credit that I could use to pry open the door…It wasn’t too helpful to me as I struggled.” Of far greater value was his relationship with several other writers.
Johnson cites as his “teachers” Beaumont, Matheson, Nolan, Serling, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury, who was a mentor to many of them. “If you look at those names, you’re looking at a little literary movement that took place on the West Coast,” he said, and as authors and screenwriters, they revolutionized the field of SF, fantasy and horror.
Serling adapted two of Johnson’s hitherto unpublished stories into first-season Twilight Zone episodes: “The Four of Us Are Dying” (based on “All of Us Are Dying”) and “Execution.” At the urging of his friends and fellow writers, Johnson then insisted to producer Buck Houghton that the sale of a third story, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” be contingent on adapting it himself.
Recalled Johnson, “I found it rather terrifying. I could see the great additional material that Rod had tacked onto my stories in order to make them filmable, to give them the fullness of a half-hour show. So I looked at that with great trepidation, although it was fairly simple and straightforward.” The episode stars Dick York as a man who can suddenly read people’s minds.
Beaumont’s legendary ability to charm producers landed him more assignments than he could handle himself, so he often farmed them out. “Beaumont had a very strange group of friends, and each one of his friends had his own kind of power, but a number of them, like OCee Ritch or Bill Idelson, contributed material to The Twilight Zone pseudonymously,” Johnson said.
Acting as a kind of front, Beaumont would secure the assignment and split the fee with a friend who provided an original story or first draft, sometimes without credit. In Johnson’s case, this included “Angels of Vengeance,” an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive, the Western series with Steve McQueen, and “The Prime Mover,” both of which were credited solely to Beaumont.
Johnson and Nolan acted in Roger Corman’s The Intruder (aka The Stranger, I Hate Your Guts, 1961), adapted by Beaumont from his novel. “I loved being an actor, and between Bill and me we set up a couple of very archetypal evil guys,” he recounted. “It all came about because the people we were hiring on the spot [in Missouri] to read for these parts…could not say lines.”
“A Game of Pool” portrayed a match between young shark Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) and deceased legend Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters), who is called back from the hereafter to play the challenger for the title of the world’s greatest player. Johnson was displeased when Houghton and Serling reversed his ending, in which Jesse loses—but vows defiantly to improve.
“Rod thought the idea of a limbo, where there sits the legend waiting to be summoned forth, and to which the newcomer will be doomed to replace him while he goes off to go fishing…was cute, and I thought that was dismal,” he said. During a writer’s strike, CBS remade the script without his approval for a 1980s Twilight Zone revival, ironically restoring his ending.
Johnson is especially proud of “Nothing in the Dark,” which, like “Kick the Can,” was directed by future filmmaker Lamont Johnson (no relation). In an early role, Robert Redford plays a wounded policeman given refuge by terrified tenement dweller Gladys Cooper, who finally realizes that this beneficent figure is the chameleonic “Mr. Death” she has so long feared.
“It isn’t an impossible dream to write some piece that is really perfection, does its own thing so well, is such a clean statement of itself—its intention, purpose, direction, message, all the things that are in it—that it’s a whole world all in itself, and in that world is totally complete…I must say in all modesty, I…achieved it myself with ‘Nothing in the Dark,’” he said.
“Kick the Can,” about retirement-home residents rejuvenated by the titular game, was remade as Steven Spielberg’s episode of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). Matheson’s script, rewritten by “Josh Rogan” (Melissa Mathison), used a new ending devised by Johnson himself, in which the children finally elect to return to their “old, nice bodies, but with fresh, young minds.”
Bradbury collaborated with Johnson on Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), an Oscar-nominated short film about the history of flight. “It was a way of adapting his five-page short story into seventeen pages of lyrical prose in which I would try to visualize paintings merging and melting into each other, so as to use superimposure and the moving camera on works of art.”
Johnson adapted the teleplay “Tick of Time” from his story “The Grandfather Clock,” but a staffing change ended his Twilight Zone run. “The new producer [William Froug] didn’t like it that much and wanted to change it around and brought in another writer, Richard DeRoy, who rewrote and retitled [it as “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”]. When I looked at it I was horrified,” he said.
Contributing to another seminal series, Johnson wrote “The Man Trap,” the first episode of the original Star Trek to be broadcast. “That title was tacked on it by [series creator] Gene Roddenberry. Originally it was called ‘Damsel With a Dulcimer,’…who in some mystic way could cast a spell upon you and make you see her the way you wanted to see her,” as he recalled.
Star Trek producer Herbert Solow “later on hired [The Green Hand, a corporation formed by contributors Johnson, Matheson, Sohl, and Sturgeon] over at MGM studios to try to develop a pilot or two. We never managed to get one developed to anyone’s satisfaction, that is to say we could never sell anything to the network, although we turned out various interesting notions…”
Logan’s Run depicted a dystopic, overpopulated future in which deadly Sandmen hunt those who “run” from society’s mandatory death age of twenty-one. Although disappointed that their own screenplay was not used when the novel was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, authors Nolan and Johnson had the satisfaction of seeing it turn into a multimedia phenomenon.
“We plotted all of this in advance, prophesied it all,” Johnson said. “We saw just exactly how it could be marketed as a movie, a comic book, and this and that. We had it all planned out, talked enthusiastically to everybody about it, and kept getting delays. It took some nine years to get Logan’s Run to the screen.” (As of this writing, a remake has been announced.)