An actor who turned director, Lamont Johnson won a reputation in the early 1970s for his finely nuanced, perceptive direction of some interesting projects.
When his reputation faltered after some ill-judged script choices, he found new acclaim as a director of television films, many of them daring to confront challenging subjects. Perhaps his finest theatrical movie was The Last American Hero, based on the true story of the son of a moonshine liquor maker, who develops a flair for racing cars after out-running the police with whisky on many occasions. To raise money to help get his father out of jail, he takes up professional stock car racing. The notable critic Pauline Kael called it "a fine, scrupulous film", adding, "This movie transcends its genre; it isn't only about stock-car racing, any more than The Hustler was only about shooting pool."
Born Ernest Lamont Johnson Jr to a real estate salesman in California in 1922, Johnson studied at Pasadena City College, where he acted in radio dramas, and he made his stage debut at the Pasadena Playhouse before attending UCLA. Unable to serve in the military during the Second World War because of health problems, he joined the USO (United Services Overseas) and entertained troops in Europe. The actress Toni Merrill, whom he had met in Pasadena, was part of the USO company. The couple married in Paris in 1945.
On his return, Johnson directed plays at neighbourhood theatres, though radio was his prime source of income in the 1940s due to his richly sonorous, virile voice. He was a regular cast member of The Adventures of Frank Meriwell (1946-49), and he played the eponymous heroine's first lover in the unusual soap opera Wendy Warren and the News (1947), which mixed real breaking news with the fictional romantic entanglements of reporter Wendy. His outstanding radio role was that of Tarzan in a series of popular 30-minute adventures.
The handsome Johnson was briefly under contract to Universal Pictures when the studio was building a stable of "beefcake" stars, but he failed to make the impact of Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler or Rock Hudson, so moved into television , appearing on anthology shows such as Hallmark Hall of Fame, and such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke. Films in which he had small roles included Retreat, Hell! (1952) and The Brothers Rico (1957).
In New York, he directed an off-Broadway production of Gertrude Stein's play Yes Is for a Very Young Man (1949), a story of French resistance in the early days of the war. A challenging piece, Stein's first without music, it featured her idiosyncratic style of frequent repetition and occasional nursery-school locution. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, found the play thin and sketchy, but advised that "a certain freshness of truth does come through it in some elusive fashion". Johnson's other stage work included The Potting Shed (1957), Under Milk Wood (1959) and the opera productions, Semiramede (1964), Iphigenie en Tauride (1962) and Orfeo (1990).
He also directed some of the era's most celebrated television shows, such as The Naked City, Have Gun – Will Travel, Peter Gunn and The Defenders, and he directed eight episodes of the venerated series The Twilight Zone, including the classic, "Nothing in the Dark" (1962), in which an old lady barricades herself in a tenement basement because of her fear of death, but admits a young policeman she sees lying wounded in the snow after a shoot-out. Johnson was responsible for the casting of Gladys Cooper as the old lady, having worked with her in the theatre. "I loved her," he said, "though she was a very tough lady."
He cast the unknown Robert Redford as the cop after seeing him on television, but asked him to audition with Cooper first. "After the audition, I told Redford we would be in touch, but as soon as he closed the door, Gladys grabbed my arm and said, 'Darling, get him for me!' She was a sexy old babe, and I could see her looking at him, sort of cruising him like crazy."
Johnson made his debut as a film director with A Covenant with Death (1967), a courtroom drama that had an intriguing premise (a wrongly condemned man scuffles on the scaffold and accidentally kills the hangman), but suffered from a plodding pace. Johnson received his first attention from critics when he directed The Mackenzie Break (1970), a suspenseful wartime tale of German prisoners breaking out of an Allied prisoner-of-war camp, and it was followed by an offbeat western, A Gunfight (1971), starring Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash.
Between these films, Johnson directed the first of his critically acclaimed, controversial television movies, My Sweet Charlie (1970), a touching account of an interracial romance that won him the Directors Guild of America award. He won the award again for That Certain Summer (1972), the first television movie to deal exclusively with homosexuality – it told of a divorced man who has to tell his 14-year-old son that he is now in a gay relationship. Judith Crist wrote in New York Magazine: "The artistry with which this delicate subject is handled for a mass audience is remarkable for any medium – let alone a giant step for television." Martin Sheen, playing the man's partner, told of his reaction when asked if he thought the role would hurt his career. "I've robbed banks, kidnapped children, raped women and murdered people in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and this was considered a career-ender. What kind of culture do we live in?"
Johnson next made two acceptable films for the cinema, The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), a spy thriller with science-fiction overtones, and You'll Like My Mother (1972), a psychological horror tale, before The Last American Hero (1973), starring Jeff Bridges and Valerie Perrine. It was to be the last of Johnson's distinguished cinema films, but he continued to produce outstanding work for television, for which he received 11 Emmy nominations, winning twice. "I find a great many things that never make it to the big screen, because they're controversial, wind up on television, done with a considerable amount of daring," Johnson said in 1992.
With Martin Sheen starring, he made The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), a heart-rending account of the trial of the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Crisis at Central High (1980) tackled the Civil Rights Movement in its portrayal of the Little Rock Nine, nine black youngsters who were barred in 1957 from entering Little Rock High School until President Eisenhower mobilised troops to protect them.
Johnson won his first Emmy for Wallenberg: A Hero's Story (1985), a mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain as the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped save the lives of an estimated 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust. He won a second Emmy for Gore Vidal's civil war drama, Lincoln (1988), starring Sam Waterston.
Ernest Lamont Johnson, Jr, actor and director: born Stockton, California 30 September 1922; married 1945 Toni Merrill (one son, one daughter); died Monterey, California 24 October 2010.