Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 11, 2015
Horror fans received a double blow this week. It started with the news that Richard Johnson (1927-2015) had died and today we woke up to the news that Christopher Lee (1922-2015), arguably the last of the great classic horror film icons, had shuffled off this mortal coil to join his old pal Peter Cushing in repose.
Both Lee and Johnson worked in a variety of film genres and played remarkably similar roles throughout their careers including soldiers, kings, adventure seekers, fortune hunters, cops, criminals, doctors, professors, investigators, government spies and spy villains. But for myself and many others, it is their distinct body of work in horror films that has made the most impact and will undoubtedly survive them for many decades to come.
Before learning about Lee’s passing I was preparing a written tribute to Richard Johnson, which you’ll find below, but I couldn’t possibly let Lee’s death go unmentioned. He remains one of my favorite performers and a giant among men both figuratively and literally. The tall, dark and strikingly handsome actor will undoubtedly receive many well-deserved accolades today and in the weeks to come but I hope you’ll make time to watch TCM’s touching video tribute.
I’ve always liked Richard Johnson and I was saddened to learn about his death, which didn’t generate much discussion in the various social network circles I travel in. The British born actor with a distinct baritone voice died on June 5th at age 87 following a brief illness just a day before he was scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Transilvania International Film Festival. He remained extremely active until his final days and in some regards, Johnson’s own life mirrored the adventurous films he appeared in.
Richard Johnson started life in Upminster, Essex as one of four children. According to various interviews, his father was a businessman and his mother was responsible for taking care of his large family. Johnson showed an early affinity for acting and by the age of 16, he was attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he soon found himself appearing alongside John Gielgud in a 1944 stage production of Hamlet. Duty called and a year later he left school to spend four years in the British Royal Navy. After his military service Johnson returned to acting and performed in a number of stage productions, including a memorable stint as Shakespeare’s Romeo, before turning his attention towards television and film.
His early film roles were limited to playing unnamed characters such as the “control tower operator” in CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1951) and the “hit-and-run victim” in SCOTLAND YARD INSPECTOR (1952). He found more success in television where he was offered meatier parts including D’Artagnan in a production of THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1952) and Mr. Wickman in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1952). The Jane Austin adaptation is particularly memorable because it featured Peter Cushing in the lead role as the romantic hero, Mr. Darcy. I mention this because I find Johnson and Cushing’s acting styles remarkably similar and both men would eventually find themselves portraying doctors in popular horror films that would become the cornerstones of their impressive careers.
After a number of minor roles in moderately successful films, Johnson finally found a part suitable for his talent playing Dr. John Markway, a paranormal investigator who brings a group of unusual characters together to explore a sinister house in THE HAUNTING (1963). Johnson was asked to join the cast after director Robert Wise saw his performance as Father Urbain Grandier in the original 1961 stage production of The Devils and during filming the two men reportedly got on extremely well. Wise, who had a long history in Hollywood, offered Johnson some stellar advice on his acting and as a result, his performance as Dr. John Markway is remarkably nuanced and effective. His measured voice as he reads aloud Shirley Jackson’s original text (“Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”) during the opening moments of THE HAUNTING resonates throughout the course of the film. And there is no hint of irony or insincerity as Johnson’s character wrestles with invisible spooks and specters while trying to calm his group of ragtag ghost hunters. He becomes the rock that the other characters cling to as their world begins to spin wildly out of control and although he cannot save them all, his sensitivity towards the doomed Eleanor (Julie Harris) is particularly touching.
Top: THE HAUNTING (1963), Middle: KHARTOUM (1965), DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967) Bottom: Johnson with wife, Kim Novak.
After appearing in THE HAUNTING the scripts started to roll in and Johnson went on to appear in a number of notable films including THE PUMPKIN EATER (1964), OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965) KHARTOUM (1965) and THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS (1965) where he met future wife, actress Kim Novak. Unfortunately, their relationship was short-lived and within a year the two were divorced. In an interview with Cinema Retro magazine Johnson briefly discussed his marriage to Novak saying, “She was very, very talented, a completely natural film actress. Kim never really liked the film business, you know. She was a massive female star of the 50s. But in those days the studios owned you. Columbia owned her. They kept insisting she was 19 long after she wasn’t . . . The studios had a horrible fear of their stars growing older, especially female stars. Eventually it gets to the women. Many actresses are very unhappy people I’ve found.”
In the mid-sixties Johnson became one of the many actors that was approached to play James Bond, as I detailed in a previous post, but he turned the role down because he wasn’t interested in committing to the character for seven years. He did end up playing a spy in a a number of entertaining Bond spoofs including DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), DANGER ROUTE (1967) and SOME GIRLS DO (1969) but critics weren’t particularly kind although audiences enjoyed them. He also gained somewhat of a reputation as a playboy following his divorce from Novak. Romance apparently blossomed between Johnson and Barbara Bouchet on the set of DANGER ROUTE and he was later spotted with the curvaceous actress, Edy Williams who once wistfully recalled that Richard Johnson was “The first man to really make love to me.”
Various dramatic roles followed including a turn as Caius Cassius in the 1970 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where he got to make good use of his RADA training and work with his friend, Charlton Heston again (the two had become close on the set of KHARTOUM). But as the swinging sixties gave way to the seventies and Hollywood began to rapidly change, the starring roles seemed to dry up for Johnson. Like many working actors his age, he ended up in Italy where he appeared in a number of films in the late 60s and early 70s including some exceptional horror movies. Critics and journalists have often referred to this period in Johnson’s career as “slumming” but the actor seemed to enjoy the experience and particularly appreciated the camaraderie he found on Italian film sets. In one of his last interviews done just 3 short months before he died, Johnson told a writer from The Consulting Detective, “The great attraction of making films in Italy was, and I did quite a lot of Italian films in the 60s, that it was la familia. We are family; we are a family of people making the films. We all got the same treatment. The technicians, the grips, whatever they all felt, they were absolutely part of the movie. The actor may be in front of the camera but whoever is behind the camera is just as important and that is absolutely right.”
Top: THE WITCH (1966), Middle: THE NIGHT CHILD (1975), ZOMBI 2 (1979) Bottom: At a publicity screening for his last film, RADIATOR (2014)
Some of the best Italian horror films Johnson appeared in during this period include Damiano Damiani’s eerie and beguiling THE WITCH (1966) where he’s pursued by two witches; Massimo Dallamano’s THE NIGHT CHILD (1975) which features Johnson as a widowed historian whose daughter begins to show signs of demonic-like possession and Lucio Fulci’s undead epic ZOMBI 2 (1979). In all three films, Johnson remains stoic and never seems to question the fantastic nature of his various predicaments. His seriousness allows the audience, if they are able and willing, to become utterly immersed in these strange and frightening worlds and his earnest attachment to some of the more unusual characters he portrayed is truly admirable.
One standout example of this can be found in ZOMBI 2, where Johnson plays another troubled doctor named David Menard but this time he’s dealing with a zombie outbreak on a remote island instead of a haunted house. He genuinely feels something for the undead monsters he’s forced to shoot and the way he averts his sad, tired eyes after firing his gun is surprisingly moving. He’s trained to give life after all, not take it, and his anguish is unmistakable. A lesser actor would have treated this as a toss away role but despite all the bloodshed and absurd action (zombies fighting sharks!), Johnson remains utterly convincing as the zombie plagued doctor.
In his last years, Johnson began managing eco-friendly hotels and regularly wrote adventurous travel articles with accompanying videos for The Daily Mail that allowed him to share his enthusiasm and passion for exotic locations such as Turkey’s Aegeanhe River, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple and Egypt’s White Desert. He also never retired from acting and one of the last films he appeared in was the award-winning British drama RADIATOR (2014) where he plays an aging father suffering from dementia while furiously trying to face down his impending death. This final role seems strangely appropriate for a man who spent much of career acting in films where his characters were compelled to fight for their life. Critics have praised Johnson’s final performance and the film should receive a wider release soon but until then we have an impressive body of his work to enjoy on DVD and video.
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