The colorful sci-fi scribe co-wrote the novel 'Logan’s Run' and the story that became the original, sequel-spawning 'Ocean's Eleven.' His son confirms his death.
George Clayton Johnson, the celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer who wrote the first aired episode of Star Trek, seven episodes of The Twilight Zone and the novel on which Logan’s Run is based, has died. He was 86.
Johnson, who also co-wrote the story that became the 1960 heist movie Ocean’s Eleven, died Christmas Day of bladder and prostate cancer at a veteran’s hospital in North Hills, Calif., his son, Paul Johnson, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Several news outlets were premature in reporting Johnson's death over the past three days.
A native of Cheyenne, Wyo., with a distinctive straggly white beard and long hair, Johnson was a beloved, colorful and mystical figure in the world of sci-fi.
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling paid him $500 for his unpublished short story that Serling adapted for the 13th episode of the CBS series. In “The Four of Us Are Dying,” which aired on the first night of the 1960s, Harry Townes portrays a con man who can change his face to appear as anyone he chooses.
Another of the writer’s stories led to another first-season episode, “Execution,” about a scientist (Russell Johnson) who uses a time machine to pluck a man about to be hanged in 1880 into the present day.
Johnson later wrote the Twilight Zone scripts for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” revolving around a bank clerk (Dick York) who discovers he has telepathic powers; “A Game of Pool,” with Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters meeting in a high-stakes contest; “Nothing in the Dark,” starring Robert Redford as Death; “Kick the Can,” about elderly folks who get to become kids again; and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” with Ed Wynn as a man who feels his fate is linked to a grandfather clock.
“The Twilight Zone played just as much a part in the renaissance transformation of the '60s as bright-colored clothing, rock music and marijuana did,” he said in an enlightening and entertaining 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It helped to jack people up to a higher level.”
In the first installment of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” which aired Sept. 8, 1966, the crew of the Enterprise visit a planet and begin dying from a sudden lack of salt in their bodies. Before it debuted, the Gene Roddenberry series had about a half-dozen episodes in the can, and Johnson's was picked by NBC executives to air first. He was very pleased.
Roddenberry commissioned him to write another episode, and he turned in a script that had the Enterprise being threatened from within by a child-like force. But "Rock-a-Bye Baby or Die" never was made.
Johnson and William F. Nolan co-authored the 1967 novel Logan’s Run, about how all people in the year 2116 are sentenced to death when they reach age 21. It morphed into the 1976 film that starred Michael York and a short-lived 1977-78 CBS series toplined by Gregory Harrison.
Johnson received his first onscreen credit for a story that became a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he went on to write episodes of Route 66, Honey West and Kung Fu.
“I want to be remembered as a person who early on in his life took control of his life and set goals,” he said in the TV Archive interview. “When people gave me a lined paper, I wrote the other way. When people expect some certain behavior from me, I will frustrate their expectations.”
Born July 10, 1929, Johnson served in the Army from 1946-49, based mainly in Panama, and briefly studied architecture at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He took three years making his way around the country and, when he got to Los Angeles, worked as a draftsman. Later, while on the job at Lockheed in Burbank, he quit to pursue a writing career.
He and Jack Golden Russell came up with the story for Ocean’s Eleven — the first thing Johnson had ever written — and got it to actor Peter Lawford, who starred in the sequel-spawning Las Vegas-set film with his fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop.
Soon, a grocer he knew got him an introduction to Charles Beaumont, a prolific writer of sci-fi and horror short stories, and Beaumont would prove to be a great influence. Beaumont wrote 22 episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as the novel and screenplay for the Roger Corman film The Intruder (1962), starring future Star Trek leading man William Shatner. (Johnson played a redneck and Beaumont a school principal in the movie.)
Johnson also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated animated short Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), based on a story by another sci-fi legend, Ray Bradbury, who would come to be a mentor.
In the late 1950s, Johnson was a proprietor of Cafe Frankenstein, a famous counter-culture coffee house/bookstore on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Calif. He was a longtime resident of the L.A. neighborhood of Pacoima.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 63 years, Lola — whom he married two weeks after meeting her — and their daughter, Judy.
In his short story “Your Three Minutes Are Up,” from his 1999 collection All of Us Are Dying, Johnson writes about receiving a late-night phone call from Beaumont, who had died more than two decades earlier. Johnson asks his friend what heaven is like.
“It’s exactly the way I imagined it would be,” Beaumont says. “Everything is perfect. There is not a discordant note. There is never any waiting, and no one disputes anything I say.”
Star Trek too had a rocky start. A second pilot episodes had been made after NBC rejected the first, “The Cage”. The replacement, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and the series got the go-ahead. Johnson was asked to take over on “The Man Trap”, a story featuring a shape-shifting alien which dined on the salt in the crew’s blood. In the end, his version was revised by Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator; not, in Johnson’s view (and that of the story editor, John Black) for the better. It was, however, the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast, on September 8 1966.
His most notable success outside science fiction was the original treatment for the 1960 “Rat Pack” heist movie Ocean’s 11, starring Frank Sinatra. But while Johnson co-wrote the story, not much of his work made it into the screenplay or film, though he did write the subsequent novelisation.
George Clayton Johnson was born in a barn outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, on July 10 1929, the son of Charles Johnson, a railwayman, carpenter’s mate and part-time bootlegger, and his wife Laura. His parents divorced when he was five and he travelled around the country with his mother, who became an alcoholic, staying with relatives; by the time he went out to work, aged 15, he had attended more than a dozen schools.
His first job was as a shoeshine boy, before joining the US Army, where he was a telegraph operator and draughtsman. The GI Bill paid for college at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, where he began to train as an architect before dropping out to get married and to try to make it as a writer.
Johnson found himself in Los Angeles and fell in with a set of writers – often known as “The Group” – which included Nolan, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Many earned their main income in film or television, and so Johnson reworked Ocean’s 11, planned as a novel, as a screenplay.
He had his first success with a sale to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and had several short stories published in Gamma, a science fiction magazine; he also made a couple of sales to mainstream outlets such as Playboy and, later, The Twilight Zone Magazine. Other work included the short film Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), written with Ray Bradbury, and episodes of shows such as Wanted Dead or Alive and Kung Fu. In later years, he wrote comic books and was a regular fixture at science fiction, Star Trek and comic conventions.
With his very long white hair and beard, wide straw hat and gap-toothed grin, he was easy to spot and easier still to engage in conversation. Johnson maintained a boundless enthusiasm for stories well into old age. He was also an unrepentant hippie, not only in appearance, but also in his advocacy of the legalisation of marijuana and his evangelical vegetarianism.
George Clayton Johnson married, in 1952, Lola Brownstein, who survives him, together with their son Paul and daughter Judy.
George Clayton Johnson, born July 10 1929, died December 25 2015