Yesterday a friend of mine died suddenly. He was 88. I knew him for 32 years. He always had such a strong core and robust temperament I never stopped to think that some day his body would give out.
Lamont Johnson was a director of stunning power, range and sensitivity. No filmmaker of his generation launched more first-rate acting talents in movies and television or illuminated more enduring American stories on TV. (To read my tribute to him for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, click here, but beware of the site's incorrect sidebar lists; to read an interview I did with him for Salon about working with Rod Serling and J.J. Abrams, click here.)
You may not recognize his name unless you follow the Emmys -- he was nominated eleven times and won twice. But if you watched series like "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Peter Gunn," the original "Twilight Zone," "Naked City" and "The Defenders," you saw some of his work. (Steven Spielberg remade one of Johnson's episodes in "Twilight Zone -- The Movie.") And when made-for-TV movies came into their own, Johnson was at the center of the action, directing the breakthrough network films about race relations ("My Sweet Charlie," 1970), homosexuality ("That Certain Summer," 1972), American military conduct ("The Execution of Private Slovik," 1974) and the blacklist ("Fear on Trial," 1975) -- and imbuing them with a texture and tingle that went beyond the messages on the page.
On the big screen, he guided Jeff Bridges to his first great star performance, in "The Last American Hero" (1973, above). He did the same for Diane Lane in "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981). Indeed, he had a special gift for mentoring young actors, like Robby Benson in the movie "One on One" (1977) and Mare Winningham in the TV-movie "Off the Minnesota Strip" (1980). Eric Roberts did his best work ever in Johnson's spare, elegant adaptation of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" (1979) for PBS' "American Short Story" series.
The last time I spoke with Lamont, we talked about the death of Ingmar Bergman. He revered Bergman's intimate communication with his actors. He said that Bergman blazed a trail, on stage and in TV as well as movies, that Johnson, in his own way, tried to follow. He considered Bergman "the model, the absolute paragon," for "the way he saw right through the fiber of people and gave you their insights, their insides; he could expose the worst and most fearful side of mortal nature and get you to say, `Yes, that's the way it is.' He made you feel it was all terribly frightening and also absolutely true."
Johnson's own moments of truth, which could be as humorous as they were harrowing, imbued miniseries as different as "Wallenberg" (1985), "The Kennedys of Massachusetts" (1990) and "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" (1988) with bold dimensions and heroic authenticity.
In 1999, J.J. Abrams asked him to turn an episode of "Felicity," Abrams' young-adult identity drama, into a replica of a classic segment of "The Twilight Zone." Johnson took up the challenge with delight, then pulled it off with dazzling inventiveness. It was his last professional directing job.
Johnson's first professional directing job, in the 1940s, was mounting the American premiere of Gertrude Stein's play, "Yes is for a Very Young Man." He never lost his emotional honesty and playfulness, his passion for theatrical expression, and his insatiable curiosity. In the end, he proved that yes is for a very old man, too.