21 Questions: Kenneth Johnson (V, Incredible Hulk, Alien Nation)

Interviewer: Erik Matthews

Kenneth (Kenny) Johnson, director, writer, producer, was born in Arkansas on October 26, 1942. Johnson graduated from the famed Drama Department at Carnegie-Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) in 1964. Johnson joined The Mike Douglas Show as a producer-director in 1966, and was soon asked to run the talk-variety show as Executive Producer.

Anxious to move into the world of film directing, Johnson moved to California in 1970 and was encouraged by Carnegie classmate, Steven Bochco, to write. Through Bochco, Johnson met Harve Bennett at The Six Million Dollar Man for whom Johnson created The Bionic Woman, which pushed Six Million into the Top Ten. In 1977 Johnson was asked by Universal TV President Frank Price to tackle one of the Marvel Comic Super Heroes. Johnson created, produced and directed the movie-pilot of The Incredible Hulk. The series became a highly-rated instant classic and an Emmy winner.

Joining Warner Brothers in 1982, Johnson created another television landmark: his original mini-series “V”. An epic, space-age retelling of The Rise of the Third Reich, “V” earned Johnson a nomination for the Writers Guild Award and was the highest-rated program NBC had had in over two and a half years. Its monumental 40 share still places it among the Top Fifteen mini-series in television history. It was also critically acclaimed and enjoyed equal success internationally. When 20th Century Fox Television asked Johnson to assess the TV series potential of their feature Alien Nation, he saw in it the possibility of an allegorical drama about the world’s newest minority. The subsequent series won numerous honors including the prestigious Viewers for Quality Television Award and an Emmy. (It is notable that every pilot-movie which Johnson created and directed was ordered to series.)

Sandwiched in between other work, Johnson greatly enjoyed directing multiple episodes of friends’ series, Seven Days and JAG. He also became an instructor at the film schools of USC and UCLA. When his original “V” was released on DVD it was an instant best-seller. Johnson sold NBC on the idea of doing a sequel which picked up the story 20 years later. That project is still in development along with numerous others.

EM: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Kenny.

1. You chose a path in the dramatic arts at a very young age. What lead you in the direction of writing and directing rather than acting?

KJ: I wasn’t a bad actor, but I was a much less bad director.

2. Did you ever imagine while working on any of your various projects that your work would be so strongly received and fondly remembered ten, twenty, even thirty years later?

KJ: It constantly amazes and humbles me.

3. What did you think of Universal’s big budget Hulk movie?

KJ: A real mess.  Three different movies, none of which worked.  No emotional centerpiece as Bixby was.  No heart.  And the Hulk looked like Shrek.

4. Bill Bixby definitely was a strong emotional centerpiece that viewers could relate to.  I never knew until listening to your audio commentary of the Hulk pilot that Bixby had gone through so many personal tragedies during the production of the series.  Do you think portraying such a tragic character at the same time he was going through these difficulties in his own life was hard for him or was he the type who completely separated work and real life?

KJ: Both.  It was an emotional roller coaster for all of us, particularly Bix.

5. Discounting the TV-Movies that were made in the late eighties, if you had had the ability to craft an end for your Hulk and David Banner, how would you have seen their story coming to a close?

KJ: We would have brought David Banner to the end of his nightmare and relieved him of the curse.

6. When given the task of adapting Alien Nation from film to TV you specifically moved away from the “Lethal Weapon” formula that the movie used in order to explore more complex social issues. Did the fact that FOX wanted a “Lethal Weapon with Aliens” series influence their decision to cancel the show despite its positive critical and fan response?

KJ: While Fox never really understood the series, the decision to cancel it was simply Barry Diller thinking he could get bigger numbers with comedies on Monday night.  His comedies tanked so badly, they had to give the night back to the affiliates. Peter Chernon apologized to the TV Critics Association, saying that canceling Alien Nation was the biggest mistake they ever made. (Then it only took two years for me to convince them to continue with the movies.)

7. Did you get to explore most of the themes you wanted with Alien Nation? Were there any big stories we didn’t get to see?

KJ: As long as there was prejudice and discrimination in the world there would have been sufficient material to continue the series.

8. Do you know if we will see the series, and telemovies, on DVD anytime soon?

KJ: The pilot and series episodes are available through Columbia House. No idea about the movies.

9. You came onboard the time travel series “Seven Days” in its second season and directed many episodes. Did you have much if any creative input? It always seemed, to me anyway, to be a series that never reached it’s potential.

KJ: I did the show because my friend and former Cinematographer John McPherson was producing the show and asked me to.  It proved to be a lot of fun and each episode was unique and challenging. I did have a lot of input on the scripts I directed.

10. Moving on to “V,” my favorite of your shows, and my favorite piece of television of the past 25 years, have you still not viewed any of “V: The Final Battle,” or “V” the weekly series?

KJ: Nope. And I never will.

11. After bouncing around for a while, and receiving a lot of positive comments along the way, your “V: The Second Generation” sequel script was ultimately shelved by NBC. One executive commented that it didn’t seem original enough, and yet then NBC turned around and asked for a remake instead.  Isn’t that kind of contradictory even by network standards?

KJ: No, it’s right in keeping with the shortsightedness and fear of doing something original that most networks exhibit.  They also turned around and bought a mini-series of Hercules. Now there’s an original idea, huh? Only been filmed 52 times. Ah, the Brain Trust.

12. Does NBC have a lock on the property for some reason? It seems that there would be other avenues and formats for which “The Second Generation” could be produced if NBC-Universal is afraid of doing something original.

KJ: No, Warners owns the rights. There are indeed other avenues.

13. I won’t ask you too many details about your remake treatment. But one thing we’d really like to know is if you intend to use revised versions of the original characters like Donovan and Diana or if you are creating new characters? I know what I would prefer to see as a fan but I’m very curious about how you approached it creatively.

KJ: Still in the development stages. My original themes and characters were pretty well thought out and constructed. I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken.

14. Going along with that question, you have mentioned that you hope that if the “V” remake is produced and successful you will then get the opportunity to produce “The Second Generation” as a follow on. If there were to happen would “The Second Generation” still be a continuation of the original story, or a sequel to the remake? Essentially I’m wondering if we have any chance of seeing Marc Singer or Jane Badler again in something other than walk-on cameos?

KJ: I’m very fond of Marc, Jane, Faye and Robert Englund among many others. At this point I’m trying to keep all options open.

15. What are your feelings in general about the current craze of remaking older television properties or to use the recently invented buzzword that sends fan screaming toward the hills, “re-imaginings”?

KJ: See answer #11. — Non-creative execs always feel safer if something was successful before (then they don’t have to take the blame if something new isn’t successful). There are currently over 50 remakes in the planning stages — and that’s just in the feature world. I heard someone say recently that execs need to re-imagine because they can’t simply imagine.

16. Do you think this trend will end any time soon? Will innovation ever become the rule rather than the exception in Hollywood?

KJ: Not as long as network and studios are run by nervous executives.

17. Where do you see TV programming, particular the one-hour drama, going in the future in the face of cheap reality TV and hundreds of cable stations?

KJ: There’s always room for good drama — if you can get past the above mentioned execs.

18. Other than your own of course, what TV shows and films do you find you enjoy watching most?

KJ: I watch very little TV, usually reading instead. Never saw a Star Trek episode or a Seinfeld or an E.R. (though I did suggest that exact show to Brandon Tartikoff back in the ’80’s). My taste in movies is very eclectic, and generally and a foreign flavor. I ran a film society in college and got to see 500 of the greatest films in cinema history, so my standards have always been pretty high.  Some of my personal faves are Buster Keaton, George Stevens, Howard Hawkes, Sidney Lumet, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut (particularly Day for Night) and of course Kurosawa.

19. What do you like to read?

KJ: History, classics, 19th Century Lit particularly.

20. Science fiction fans tend to be very imaginative themselves, what advice do you have for those aspiring writers out there who want to bring their stories to the screen?

KJ: Go to a good school. Learn your craft. Discipline yourself. And have great tenacity.

21. Finally, of all the “worlds” you have created in your career do you have a favorite, and if so why?

KJ: Because of it’s societal scope and overall quality, “V” is probably at the top, but Alien Nation and The Huld were also very pleasing. My Sherlock Holmes Returns was a hair-puller to write, but ultimately extremely gratifying. There are a dozen or more other completed scripts I would love to have made but which fell by the wayside (often because the management at the film studio or network changed). They remain great frustrations for me, but then life isn’t over yet. And if it suddenly were over, I would still be very pleased that I have been able to direct many of my creations and that the acceptance of them by critics and public alike has been so rewarding. I’m also happy that in retrospect there isn’t one piece of work that I wish I hadn’t done. I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and very appreciative that they’ve all been received so well.

Again, we thank Kenny Johnson for talking with us.  Be sure to keep an eye out for his upcoming columns in Dreamwatch, as well as his TV and film projects.