LITTLE ROCK — For someone who claims he doesn't believe in UFOs, Kenny Johnson sure owes a lot to rodenteating reptilian lizard people from outer space.
And let's not forget the hairless spotted aliens with two hearts from the planet Tencton.
Johnson, a Pine Bluff native, is the personable and passionate writer/producer/director who brought us those other-worldly characters in the legendary 1983 NBC miniseries V, and in Alien Nation on the Fox network in the 1989-90 season.
Johnson also directed the five memorable Alien Nation TV movies that ran on Fox between 1994 and 1997.
These efforts have put Johnson in the pantheon of science fiction immortals. His enthusiastic admirers are legion.
How legion? Just Google V the miniseries and you'll get 695,000 entries. Alien Nation returns another 427,000.
Chief among V devotees is Ilana Rapp from Somerville, N.J., mistress of the ultimate V fan site.
Rapp says that Johnson not only recognizes his fans, he deeply appreciates them as well, especially at sci-fi conventions and conferences.
"When he speaks, he is so driven with passion that it creates even more excitement," Rapp says. "It's great to see the personality behind the legend."
Johnson never started out to become a sci-fi legend, but the journey that began at Pine Bluff's Davis Hospital in 1942 continues to this day.
Along the way Johnson got help from his family, his deep Southern roots, friends he made in college and those he met on his journey.
There was even sort of a nudge in the right direction from Richard Nixon and Shamu the Killer Whale, not to mention The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk.
Sci-fi legend? Yes, Johnson is the very fellow who created the 1976 series The Bionic Woman (which NBC has remade for the current season) and The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby, with body builder Lou Ferrigno as the button-popping green monster.
The road to Hollywood may have begun in Pine Bluff, but it quickly led to the nation's capital.
Johnson's father, Kenneth Sr., was an electrical engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the early days of World War II. He helped build the Pine Bluff Arsenal and the family moved there from their home in downtown Pine Bluff.
"Toward the end of the war," Johnson says, "mydaddy was transferred to the Pentagon, which is how we ended up in Washington.
"My mother just fell in love with [Washington] and fell out of love with Daddy, and so I was raised there and Daddy came back and lived in Little Rock."
Kenneth Sr. lived in the same house on Pine Manor Drive in the Heights until his death 20 years ago.
Johnson also speaks fondly of his stepmother, Yvonne Brantley Johnson ("the dearest lady"), whom his father married in 1950. That marriage gave Johnson two half-brothers, Greg and Rick Johnson, who now live out of state.
Kenny Johnson was back home last month for his uncle Sieg Johnson's 90th birthday party in Pine Bluff and to speak at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The recent family reunion rekindled fond thoughts of Johnson's childhood.
"I'd come to Arkansas every summer from the time I was 6 years old," he says. "I'd spend the whole three months with my dad and all my other relatives, of which I have a slew down here."
Johnson laughs and repeats the word "slew" as if he doesn't get to use it enough in Encino, Calif., where he now lives with his wife, Susie.
"My dad lived in Little Rock, but all my mom's relatives and everybody lived in Pine Bluff, so we'd sort of shuttle back and forth. We also by then had relatives in Mississippi and Louisiana and usually when I'd come down we'd sort of make the tour of the whole South. It was great."
What impresses a boy spending his summers in Pine Bluff?
"My granddaddy, John Bates Avery Johnson, had a chicken yard in the back, and we still have in the family the old cotton plantation down in Star City. As a kid I'd go down there and drive the tractor and pick the cotton."
When it came time for college, Johnson headed for the drama department at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. It was the opening step on his road to Hollywood.
"Carnegie was then, and still is, a theater school," Johnson says. "No film or television, just working on the boards with the actors. I initially was going to go in as an actor because that's what I'd done a lot of in high school, but I very quickly realized that as an actor I was a much better director."
During his first week at college Johnson met "big man on campus" Bill Pence. Pence, the future founder of the famed Telluride Film Festival, ran the school's film society and young Johnson was recruited to help.
Johnson eventually took over the film society and put himself through school setting up collegiate film societies around the country.
Another lifelong friend Johnson made at college was fellow theater student Steven Bochco. Bochco, the future creator of L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, would play an important part in Johnson's life a few years down the road.
"By the time I got out of Carnegie as a senior," Johnson says, "I not only had the great benefit of all the theatrical training I got from the school, but I had also seen 400 or 500 of the best movies in the history of cinema around the world from the film society.
"I realized that no matter how wonderful a moment was on the stage, once it was gone, it was gone. But if you could get that moment and capture it on film, then you had it forever."
ON THE WRONG COAST
The plucky Johnson first headed to New York, where he announced he was all set to make movies. The powers that be politely informed him that movies were made on the other coast. But Johnson was marriedto his first wife and they had a child and bills to pay.
"I had to make a living," Johnson says. "So I got myself hired in TV and worked in television in New York for a few years."
That may seem like a major detour for an aspiring director, but the dues paid in New York led to a job on the hottest daytime talk show around, The Mike Douglas Show, in Philadelphia. Johnson directed much of the show's film work and gained valuable experience.
"First you got to meet everybody in the world," Johnson says, his arms spreading in illustration. "Every celebrity, every author and politician came through there. I got to meet everyone from Judy Garland to Martin Luther King. It was unbelievable.
"And the second thing was I was working with an audience of 300 people at my back all the time. I got so I didn't have to look at the audience to know if something was playing well. So few film directors ever have that audience - that theatrical - experience."
Johnson was only 24 when he was asked to replace a young fellow named Roger Ailes as executive producer.
Today, Ailes is president of Fox News Channel, but in 1968 he left the Douglas show to be a media consultant for presidential candidate Richard Nixon.
"So, it's Roger and Dick," Johnson says with a wry smile. "And [Nixon said], 'I want you to come into the White House with me and be my TV guy and handle all the television stuff.'"
Johnson knew the life in Washington was "very seductive." It wasn't his path.
ON THE RIGHT COAST
"I said no to Mr. Nixon and stayed at the Douglas show for the rest of the season," Johnson says.
In 1970, Johnson headed to California and announced he was ready to make films.
The powers that be, however, labeled him a talk show producer, and Johnson was stuck again.
To make ends meet, Johnson took a variety of jobs. They included working on several game shows such as The Joker's Wild, and even producing the killer whale shows at SeaWorld.
"We did Shamu the Yankee Doodle Whale in 1976 for the bicentennial," Johnson says, laughing. "And we did a waterski show where one of the girls was named Jaime Summers. I was always collecting names and that was a great one."
It appeared that Johnson's directing career might never get off the ground, but fate andfriendship intervened.
Johnson, who knew only a couple of people in Los Angeles, was staying in Steven Bochco's guest room. Bochco suggested that if Johnson really wanted to control his own fate, he should write. If Hollywood liked his scripts, he could sell them on the condition they let him direct as well.
Johnson hated writing, but with Bochco's encouragement, he gave it a try.
"I discovered that I could write and write pretty fast and with a pretty fair degree of quality," Johnson says.
Bochco then introduced Johnson to others at Universal Studios, including the producer of a new show called The Six Million Dollar Man. The show was in its first season and out of scripts. Johnson was brought on board and asked for fresh ideas.
THE DOOR CRACKS OPEN
"That's sort of how I began to get my foot in the door," Johnson says.
One of his first ideas was a variation of The Bride of Frankenstein - a mate for the bionic man.
"And so I wrote [the episode] "The Bionic Woman" in about three weeks," he says.
The name of his bionic woman? Jaime Summers, played by Lindsay Wagner.
The episode was a hit, and Johnson was hired as a producer for The Six Million Dollar Man.
Later, when another bionic woman episode was called for, Johnson had a little fun withanother name from back in Arkansas.
"The bad guy's name was Carleton Harris," Johnson says. "[Harris] was the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and one of my dad's oldest friends."
Johnson called Harris up and told him he was "a really bad crook" in the episode, but he'd made him a star.
Johnson laughs, "He said, 'Kenny, couldn't you have made me a great barrister or something?' I said, 'Carleton, everybody knows you're a great barrister. Just be a crook for an evening. It's fun!'"
Johnson's Bionic Woman was quickly spun off into its own series, and his life hit the hectic Hollywood fast track.
Johnson was writing and producing two shows and going through a divorce, but he still wasn't getting the chance to direct.
So he left the first show and concentrated on the second.
Johnson would say the best thing he got from The Six Million Dollar Man was his second wife, Susie Appling Johnson. The couple met in 1975 when she came to work on the series.
Kenny says, "We took one look at each other and said, 'Oh, there you are.' That was it. We've been married for 30 years, and she's been my soul mate for 32."
In 1978, Johnson got the chance to bring The Incredible Hulk to the small screen. He eventually produced 81 episodes.
In 1983, Johnson's V, an alien allegory inspired by Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, hit the airwaves with huge ratings.
It was followed by Alien Nation in 1989. Johnson's childhood experiences with prejudice, discrimination and intolerance heavily influenced this project.
"My mom and stepfather were terribly, terribly bigoted - virulently anti-Semitic," Johnson says. "I heard racial slurs and hate words every day of my life as a child. I just instinctively knew it was wrong.
"The fun thing about doing sci-fi is you can use it as allegory and metaphor. But it's all got to be character driven. If it's driven by special effects, then I'm not interested."
Fox canceled Alien Nation after only one season - a mistake it later admitted.
"It was devastating to us all," Johnson says. "Then when we got to come back and do first one and then four more TV movies, it was like a gift from the gods."
PASSION AND HUMOR
Working on a Kenny Johnson set is a challenging and rewarding experience. Johnson's passion and humor have endeared him to a number of actors who consider him like family.
Jeff Marcus, one of his stars from Alien Nation, says Johnson "has always been the father I would have chosen, had I been of sound mind when I made the choice. I can't imagine my life without him as part of it."
Gary Graham, another star of Alien Nation, adds, "The atmosphere on a Kenny Johnson set is like being on the playground on the last day of school. We play and work hard and have a thousand laughs along the way."
And Marc Singer, who played the resistance hero in V, says, "The best I can say about KennyJohnson is that he is simply the best. Untiring, dedicated, artistic, professional, upbeat, loyal, thoughtful and kind. His work speaks more eloquently for him than I can."
Johnson blushed over those remarks.
He also blushed when told that his cousin, Sieg Johnson, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Mountain Home, recalled how Kenny's aunt had blushed at some of the "mild by today's standards" sexual innuendo in one of Kenny's first scripts.
Johnson has been in Hollywood for 37 years now. Besideshis best-known series, he has written, directed and produced dozens of projects from Adam-12 and Short Circuit 2 to JAG. How has he remained grounded living in what can be the soul-crushing Hollywood bubble?
"Having done The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia and having spent so much time in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi during my childhood, I've always known that there's more to the country than just the Hollywood mentality," Johnson says. "Thousands of people write from not only the United States, but from all over the world. They're sincere, interesting, literate people. A lot of educators write me because they use V or Alien Nation in their classrooms."
At an age when most folks are thinking ahead to retirement, Johnson seems to have just gotten his second wind.
"The word retire is not in my vocabulary," Johnson says, laughing. "Susie says she wants to needlepoint a little sign to hang on my director's chair that says DNR. You know, 'Do Not Resuscitate. If he falls over on the set, let him go. That's where he loves to be and wants to be.'"
The DVDs for his second season of Incredible Hulk and the Alien Nation movie collection have just been released, and Johnson's long-awaited novel, V: The Second Generation, published by Tor Books, hits bookstores the end of November.
The novel just might make it as a miniseries one day if everything can be worked out.
In addition to his other projects, Johnson keeps busy teaching directing seminars at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
No, Johnson doesn't resent being typecast as "Mr. Sci-Fi."
"I can look back at a body of work that I'm really, really proud of," he says. "I don't know of anybody else who has had the good fortune as I have to get under America's skin three or four times, it's incredibly rewarding."
Finally, is Johnson absolutely positive about there being no UFOs?
"I think that in the vast, as Carl Sagan said, 'billlllions and billlllions' of stars there's got to be something else going on out there. But are they taking time to come and make crop circles? I don't think so."
If they ever do, Kenny Johnson would be the right guy to direct the movie.
SELF PORTRAIT Kenny Johnson
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH Oct. 26, 1942, Pine Bluff.
IF I WASN'T A WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER, I'D BE A producer/writer/director - or a novelist and teacher.
THE FOUR PEOPLE I'D INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER ARE Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Mahatma Gandhi, Charlize Theron.
FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT I Am a jazz-blues drummer.
THREE PEOPLE WHO'VE INFLUENCED ME ARE My wife Susie, Victor Hugo, Akira Kurosawa.
MY FAVORITE MOVIE IS Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa.
THE KEY TO GOOD SCIENCE FICTION IS Underlying thematic substance and metaphor.
THE LAST BOOK I READ WAS The Age of Reason Begins, volume 7 of Will & Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization.
MY CLOSE FRIENDS SAY I'M Funny.
IF I COULD LIVE ANYWHERE IT'D BE Marin County, northern California.
MY BIGGEST PET PEEVE IS Illogic and intolerance.
IN HIGH SCHOOL I WAS The drama guy and the only kid who carried a briefcase.
I KNEW I WAS GROWN UP WHEN Hasn't happened yet.
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT WAS Use your time wisely.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP Appreciative.
High Profile, Pages 49, 52 on 10/21/2007