Recently, I had the chance to interview one of my childhood heroes and inspirations, Kenneth Johnson. Kenny (as he likes to be called) was the visionary writer, producer and director of some of the most iconic (read: favorite) shows of my youth—The Six Million Dollar Man (writer), The Bionic Woman (writer, producer, creator, director), The Incredible Hulk (writer, producer, creator, director), V (writer, producer, creator, director), and Alien Nation (writer, producer, creator, director).
While attending Carnegie Mellon in the early 90s, I had discovered he was on the (very long) list of famous alumni that the school boasted. I used to get a big kick out of that while in college (“I’m going to the same school that the creator of The Incredible Hulk tv show went to!”) Many years later, after I graduated I was now an official member of this elite alumni network. Amidst the weekly solicitations for donations, I was sent an offer to purchase the “official alumni directory.” I reluctantly made the purchase, secretly hoping that it would have Kenneth Johnson’s contact info. Ripping open the box, I remember flipping through the pages of this tome, zeroing in on his name. There in all its glory, was an email address and phone number. Whether it was due to the period of my life I was in (I was just starting Perception and was completely fearless, attacking each day with a ‘can’t fail attitude’) or chalk it up to my general nature of setting goals to continually challenge myself—I immediately called the number. To my delight and complete surprise, the voice on the other end answered “This is Kenny…”
How do you communicate the respect and admiration you have for someone’s entire body of work; the depth to which you’ve been following their career, all in an opening line on a cold call–without coming across as a complete psychopathic stalker? I have a vague recollection of how I broke the ice, but the clear memory is that Kenny and I spoke for almost 30 minutes, and began an email exchange that continues to this day. My other memory, is my partner Danny Gonzalez sitting in the same room during the entire call (in those early days Perception was basically a walk in closet off a corner of a photo studio loft) shaking his head, saying “I can’t believe you just called him…you’re crazy!”
Recently, I had the honor of finally meeting him and interviewing him for the Perception Channel. This opportunity gave me the chance to reflect on his work and the legacy of his genius.
SCIENCE FICTION STORYTELLING
With so much material and so many topics fertile for discussion, I wanted to try to boil it down to some common threads and thematic ideas that would lead to a great conversation. As part of my preparation to interview Kenny I rewatched many hours of Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk episodes. I also reviewed dozens of interviews and behind the scenes commentaries he’s given.
At the heart of all his work is masterful storytelling. These shows all existed in a fantastic world just beyond our current reality, yet they were all bound together with emotional and compelling stories about deeply sympathetic characters. The humanity and depth of characterization were huge factors in the shared successes of these series. Beyond any superhuman feats of speed or strength, audiences were drawn in because they truly cared about Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers and David Banner. Johnson was able to go deep into the souls of these characters and created a multi layered tapestry of themes that weaved in and out of each episode in unique and surprising ways.
In an era long before the internet, where a simple Google or Wikipedia search on biochemistry or Bionic technology could generate endless material for a writer to use in his stories, Johnson did his homework the old fashioned way. The amount of scientific authenticity and detail that was crafted in each of these shows, created a level of believability for audiences to “buy” into these stories which were complete science fiction. Whether it was David Banner using detailed bio medical language to explain the link between gamma radiation and DNA or Dr Rudy Wells discussing the circuitry mechanics of the nuclear power sources for Bionics, Johnson deftly took audiences for the ride without ever losing them along the way. The idea of going too far is inherent to Johnson. He has a deep affinity for what his audience’s will ‘buy’ and speaks candidly of moments where others (notably Stan Lee) argued passionately to push stories over the edge. Johnson skillfully navigates that fine tightrope of what audiences will follow and believe. He discussed with me George Burns’ advice to him in our interview—“the best way to sell a lie is to make sure you put as much truth in it as possible.”
A recurrent theme at Perception, is science fiction inspiring science fact. The innovative concepts we design in movies are always grounded in today’s technologic climate—not going too far ahead but just far enough. We want audiences to believe the holograms Tony Stark is interacting with are possible. We work hard so audiences study RoboCop’s heads up display, and have to question whether its legitimate software that’s been engineered by computer scientists. This notion of grounding science fiction in reality is second nature to Kenny. He’s been selling the most fantastic, far-fetched concepts to general audiences and making them believe for generations with masterful storytelling.
To make things even more challenging, what Johnson accomplished was done during an era with little to no resources—time, money, or special effects technology—yet his work was just as convincing as today’s biggest vfx extravaganza films. How is that possible? Again, it’s brilliant storytelling but it’s combined with a deeply resourceful team of problem solvers he assembled that figured out what they could accomplish with what little they had. This is the essence of design driven problem solving.
These shows got made in a record amount of time (“like working inside a garbage disposal”), with no visual effects sophistication and no post production to speak of other then very clever editing. Whatever they shot is what they had to craft these episodes. Contrast that with today’s productions being created equally in post as during shooting. Universal was Johnson’s personal playground in the 70s—maximizing any existing sets, backlots, props, contract actors—anything that could help them achieve what the story needed.
These limitations and constraints lead to creative solutions to storytelling problems—how do we get audiences to believe Bill Bixby is changing to Lou Ferrigno? How do we get audiences to believe that Lee Majors is leaping 30 feet in the air? How do we get audiences to believe that Lindsay Wagner is running 50+mph? More often then not, the answer was NOT to show it: have these effects take place in the viewer’s imaginations. Nothing is more powerful and impactful then our own Perception. The viewer must “fill in the blanks” in their own brain—no cg effect is more convincing then what we see in our own mind’s eye. Throw Bixby through a window—cut to a close-up of his white eyes as the point of no return—cue the music–cut to close-ups of clothes ripping in strategic areas–cut to the actions/reactions of others in the scene–finally cut back to Lou Ferrigno rising up through the debris as the fully formed Incredible Hulk. The viewer just rendered the entire metamorphosis in their imagination 1000x more powerfully then any CG team ever could. Show Lee Majors squatting down, about to take a giant leap upwards—cut to a stunt double leaping through the air with only blue sky as context (really reversed video of a stunt guy falling backwards)—cut to him landing on a terrace balcony looking down from to the ground where he just was seconds ago. Bingo. The audience buys it all. Master magicians and illusionists have known this for centuries—it’s what the audience doesn’t see but creates in their own minds that they will remember and tell others for years to come—even if the sequence of events they retell isn’t quite what actually happened. All that matters is the way audiences remember it. In Scott McCloud’s brilliant Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art he explains how the space between comic panels—the gutters–is where all the action takes place. It’s in the reader’s imagination where those sequences are rendered in the most epic fashion.
I’d argue that much of Johnson’s magic, legacy, greatness and lasting appeal was due to the fact that all these shows were developed in this era with such limited resources. If he had today’s budgets, today’s vfx technology, a more expansive schedule—I wonder if these shows would’ve had the same magic; the same charm. Knowing Johnson, the storytelling, humanity and characterizations would be at the same high level, but they would be far different shows. Fans like myself love the low budget ‘rough around the edges’ qualities that made these shows so memorable and captivating.
Kevin Feige gave a beautiful commencement address a few years ago at USC where he mentions the period of history you’re born can lead to certain opportunities that made many of his incredible achievements possible. ‘There are many other points of history where I could’ve popped up, and it wouldn’t have worked out as well for me…’ I think Johnson’s greatness encapsulated a special period of history in American television pop culture at the height of his prolific career where all these factors lined up perfectly. For an extended period of time, he was responsible for creating the top rated shows on television simultaneously—his characters inspiring children everywhere to re-enact scenes from the Hulk, Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. And when we weren’t pretending to be the Hulk, or run like Steve Austin, we were bringing sandwiches to school in our Hulk lunch-boxes and showcasing our Steve Austin action figures by Kenner.
DAVID BANNER AND THE INCREDIBLE HULK
The Incredible Hulk was truly the show of my childhood. I’ve written about my love of this show in the past—every Friday night at 8pm, on CBS I was glued to the TV. Equally excited and terrified, I couldn’t turn away for a moment. 7 year olds like myself really did believe that Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were one and the same. No CG hulk, no state of the art morphing effects—just makeup, creative cinematography and editing—and audiences bought it for 5 seasons strong. The line my parents would give me was “it’s trick photography.”
What Johnson did with this character was nothing short of miraculous. As a couple of directors have since discovered, just taking the Hulk story off the comic pages and putting it on the big screen—even with great actors and all the effects money can buy—doesn’t guarantee the film will work if the story is flawed. Johnson saw the need to take a different angle on this character—build a new narrative around a deeply emotional man with a tragic past, ground it in medicine, biochemistry and physics, sprinkle in some timely news stories of superhuman feats during times of extreme stress, weave in literary themes from Robert Louis Stephenson, Mary Shelley and Victor Hugo—and you have something truly special.
This wasn’t a show about a superhero. This wasn’t a show about fighting crime or evil villains. This was a show about a quiet man with a curse—a disease, an inner demon–he’s desperate to cure any way possible taking him across the country and back, exploring every possible known modality of curing ailments. So on one level, Banner is continuously motivated to keep searching and keep moving, then on another level, the tabloid reporter Jack McGee is continuously searching for the Hulk, and later his John Doe, once he discovers that the Hulk is actually a man who transforms. This was the ingenious tension, constant motivation and Newtonian motion Johnson developed that was the heart of the show’s momentum.
Johnson and the writers continuously looked for commonalities and parallels between Banner and other characters he’d meet each week—the Hulk became an abstract idea—taking different forms for different people. Addiction, alcoholism, inner rage, child abuse— Johnson’s approach to the character in this way was sheer brilliance. He knew how to make the inner beast relatable and believable to a wide population where everyone can all relate—we all have a Hulk inside us in one form or another.
The show probably did not need to have this depth to succeed, it would’ve been a hit show regardless with a green muscleman just breaking walls every week. Without a doubt, the longevity of it, the lasting appeal was due to the depth of the character, the multi dimensional and multi layered approach Johnson took to retelling this story and the wide range of clever situations they would place Banner into. He built it on a foundation of real science and medicine, with real life stories of superhuman feats of strength in life or death situations, and grounded it in a reality everyone wanted to know more about.
FINDING THE LONELY MAN
The casting of Bill Bixby was an inspired choice. Infinitely relatable, deeply emotional, his portrayal of David Banner will be remembered for generations. The piano theme, the desert highway, the duffle bag—Bixby appealed to everyone, and evoked a deep sadness and tragic inner turmoil that was evident even through his smiles. The depth of his pathos was rare indeed. The quieter and more inconspicuous Bixby’s Banner portrayal was, the more he contrasted with Ferrigno’s Hulk magnifying these two extreme sides of the character. The duality of man on display in it’s rawest, most savage form.
In May, I finally was able to meet and interview Kenny at his office in Sherman Oaks, California. It’s exactly how I’d hoped it would be — a shrine to house all of his memorabilia, props, photos, posters, toys, models, lunchboxes and even posters of film festivals and shows he produced from his days at Carnegie Mellon. I couldn’t believe how gracious and generous he was with his time. His warmth and hospitality, his willingness to open up and share his stories and talk about his work was an honor for me. Here was the man who gave life, words and humanity to David Banner; for fleeting moments it felt like I was talking to Banner himself. Thanks Kenny, for all your work and letting me into your “room.”