Flashback Interview: George Clayton Johnson

Ten years ago I interviewed George Clayton Johnson. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. Better yet, just read this interview.

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January 3, 2002

Walking on the streets, George Clayton Johnson is both conspicuous and inconspicuous at the same time. He is conspicuous because you can’t miss him with his long white beard and straw hat. He is inconspicuous because you wouldn’t realize he is one of the most fascinating people in the world – and perhaps even this world is too small of a confinement for him.

George Clayton Johnson is a science fiction legend. He has been writing since the 1950s. His credits include: Logun’s Run (novel), The Twilight Zone (8 episodes), Twilight Zone: The Movie (“Kick the Can” segment), and Star Trek (his episode, “The Man Trap,” was chosen to be the show’s premiere episode). He has also crossed genres with Honey West (writer), Kung Fu (writer), and Ocean’s Eleven (story).

Despite this distinguished resume, George Clayton Johnson still feels that he needs “to collect credits so I can be credible.” Maybe it’s because of his impoverished upbringing – or the fact that he is an 8th grade dropout and has no academic or other technical credentials to his name.

Early on Johnson constantly jumped from one job to another – jobs that for most people would be major career changes. One of those jobs was working as a draftsman at an aerospace plant. He sometimes took home extra paper and pencils from work. One night his friend Jack Russell came to visit and they began to shoot the breeze. Although Johnson never seriously considered writing before that night, he recognized that they had some really good ideas. So he began writing them down using the pencils and paper he brought home from work. The two of them went about doing this for several months and the result was a rough draft of Ocean’s Eleven, in more or less novel form. Russell knew of a director and showed him the draft they had. The director in turn showed them how to convert what they had to screenplay format. This was how George Clayton Johnson learned how to write screenplays.

The Ocean’s Eleven script and its rights were sold to Peter Lawford and later bought by Frank Sinatra. Through the different hand changes, at least four different writers had performed extensive studio surgery on Johnson and Russell’s original version. The final product became the 1960 Rat Pack flick.

George Clayton Johnson saw Ocean’s Eleven in the theater with his family. When he saw his name in the credits, Johnson recalled that was when he “first had an ambition to really try to become a writer.”

“I set out to become an all-purpose writer,” he says. His goal as a writer is simple. “I’ve written introductions; I’ve written forwards; I’ve written articles, essays, poems, lyrics, jokes, screenplays, teleplays, novels, plays, reports; just about anything that requires some understanding of a form. I could do profiles; I could do articles, even essays. I do all these things. I wanted to be sure that I’ve done at least one of everything.”

Johnson is that prolific, with hundreds of publications and film and TV credits to his name. In 1999, he released “All of Us are Dying, and Other Stories.” This mammoth retrospective collection includes more than a dozen classic stories; teleplays from Twilight Zone and The Law and Mr. Jones; television story treatments for an unproduced Star Trek episode and a weekly series inspired by Frankenstein; a full-length unproduced fantasy screenplay; a movie treatment on the death of H.P. Lovecraft; and thousands upon thousands of words of original fiction written especially for this volume, including the autobiographical short novel, “Every Other War.”

When asked which writer he admires, Johnson is quick to name his friend Ray Bradbury. “I would like to write like Ray Bradbury,” he says. “Especially the lyrical purple passages, where the writer just takes off and sings about something and gets back to the storytelling. Ray can really do that.”

Johnson also includes in his list of writers that he admires his co-author of “Logan’s Run,” William F. Nolan, Harlan Ellison, a science fiction writer who wrote the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Jack Herer, whose book, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” (an authoritative history on hemp), was forwarded by Johnson.

What about contemporary writers like Stephen King? “I started 4 or 5 of Stephen King’s books, but only finished one,” Johnson says. “I do like ‘Carrie’ though.”

Perhaps the one person who Johnson considers his biggest influence is Charles Beaumont, another science fiction legend who also worked on The Twilight Zone. “Charles always made me feel like I can write,” George shares with me. In his early writing days, George felt that he needed someone to guide him, to show him, in his words, “how to do it right.” Beaumont was apparently that person.

From a chance meeting, the two became best of friends. Johnson even affectionately refers to Beaumont as his Lone Ranger. “I don’t play the role of leader very well,” Johnson tells me. “But the role of Tonto, I excel in.” According to him, he has an uncanny ability to sense what someone wants when that person wants it – like Tonto does with the Lone Ranger. It was this ability that makes Johnson both so easy to work with and ironically such a solitary figure. “I have the discipline to tolerate my own company,” he admitted.

Indeed, Johnson visualizes himself as “a dog without a collar.” In his mind, everyone has a collar to some degree. A collar may be in the form of a wife, a mother, a boss, and so forth. If we owe money to the bank, then the bank has our collar. Johnson, on the other hand, has no collar. He refuses to let his life be dictated by another person or circumstance. “I spent my life being inner-directed,” he says. “I want to do what I think and that’s what matters. And I don’t care what other people’s judgment is. World experts, if they advise me against what I think is the right answer, I ignore them – because I have this complex that I think that it’s my life after all.”

In a way, Johnson can afford to dismiss the critics because the fans have embraced him. It was the success of The Twilight Zone, Logan’s Run, and Star Trek that has made George Clayton Johnson such a popular figure to sci-fi fans. Today, he very much enjoys the “mantel of stardom” that’s bestowed upon him. “I love it,” he says.

The credits that he has racked up surely will place him in the history books. Yet to Johson, “it’s really a trivial thing – it has no real great reward other than a sense of accomplishment.” He added that even if people say that he’s “a footnote to the Ray Bradbury year, that he deserves that mention because of his contributions to the game…I’d be please with that.”

George Clayton Johnson shouldn’t have to worry about being credible any longer. He’s more than a just footnote.