"Lamont Johnson, an Emmy-winning director who was honored for his work on the TV programs Gore Vidal's Lincoln and Wallenberg: A Hero's Story during a wide-ranging career in television, film and theater, died of congestive heart failure at his Monterey home Sunday," reports Claire Noland for the Los Angeles Times. "Johnson, known for his sensitive treatment of controversial subjects in made-for-TV movies, dealt with interracial romance in My Sweet Charlie (1970), homosexuality in That Certain Summer (1972), blacklisting in Fear on Trial (1975) and the civil rights movement in Crisis at Central High (1981). 'I find a great many things that never make it to the big screen because they're controversial wind up on television, and done with a considerable amount of daring,' Johnson told the Miami Herald in 1992. 'That seems surprising in a medium that's supposed to be timid or anxious.'"
"On the big screen, he guided Jeff Bridges to his first great star performance, in The Last American Hero (1973)," blogs the Baltimore Sun's Mike Sragow, who's written the entry on Johnson for the Museum of Broadcast Communications and, ten years ago, talked with him for Salon about the shared DNA of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone (the image on the right up there is from Five Characters in Search of an Exit, an episode Johnson directed) and JJ Abrams's Felicity. Johnson "did the same for Diane Lane in Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981).... 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'... 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."
Viewing tip. The Archive of American Television has an extensive interview conducted in 2003 and covering Johnson's career as an actor, the period during which he was blacklisted and the made-for-TV movies he directed.
Update, 11/6: "Johnson, and other filmmakers of the time who lacked clout, were clearly the beneficiary of the looseness of American film before the Tax Shelter Law of 1976," writes Dan Sallitt, "and as far as I know, he never made another theatrical film to equal [The McKenzie Break] and American Hero. 1977's One on One with Robby Benson is the best of his later efforts; after 1983, he never tried his hand at theatrical again. TV movies were a different story, and Johnson continued to rack up Emmys and nominations into the 90s. Given an opening, Johnson never lost his ability to find unexpected excitement at the nexus of character and drama: for my money, the unheralded 1982 Dangerous Company with Beau Bridges stands with [My Sweet Charlie] as Johnson's best work in the medium. I lost track of Johnson's career after the effective, award-winning biopic Lincoln in 1988. He isn't the only good filmmaker whose reputation was written on the wind of the TV movie: perhaps someday we'll have the access and the interest to go back to the important TV work of John Korty, Joseph Sargent, Daniel Petrie. I'm thinking Johnson may have been at the top of the pile, though."
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