CRUSTY, PUGNACIOUS : ‘WALLENBERG’ DIRECTOR MADE NBC FILM HIS WAY
Lamont Johnson seems firmly to have succeeded in his ambition to be nobody’s fool.
The crusty, pugnacious director of the four-hour, two-part NBC film “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story” (airing Monday and Tuesday) has now reached the exalted career state of being able to choose just what he wants to do and then do it, something of a luxury in his line of work.
He’s accomplished, professional and proficient, whether making movie theater movies (“The Last American Hero,” “One on One”) or TV movies (“The Execution of Pvt. Slovik,” “Fear on Trial”), and he just looks like the kind of guy they don’t shove around. With a voice that might be described as Terminator Baritone, he sounds like it, too.
The word “hero” recurs in Johnson’s films, and Raoul Wallenberg was a bona fide real-life hero in about the most impressive possible sense of the term. A well-born Swedish diplomat during World War II, he risked much, if not all, to travel to Budapest to make himself an obstacle between Hungarian Jews and the Third Reich’s efforts to exterminate them. He is believed to have saved as many as 120,000 lives.
Richard Chamberlain portrays Wallenberg in the film, which was made on location in Yugoslavia because the Hungarians were afraid to let the film company into the country where all this really happened.
“They didn’t want to make waves with the Russians,” Johnson says. “The Yugoslavs, on the other hand, were delighted to have us because they love to thumb their noses at the Russians every chance they get.”
Wallenberg was mysteriously arrested by the Soviets at the end of World War II. He has not been seen since. Some believe that he is still alive. President Reagan recently signed legislation making Wallenberg an honorary American citizen.
The already multilingual Johnson learned Croatian so he could bark orders to his swarms of extras during filming of the movie. His roles were not limited to the credited ones, director and co-producer. He says he and producer Dick Berg (who also did the forthcoming CBS miniseries “Space”) are also the real authors of the screenplay.
“Dick and I rewrote the script from scratch,” Johnson says. “I hated the script Gerald Green wrote and didn’t want to do it. And Dick said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot of material coming in,’ and, ‘Read this, read that,’ and I got more interested, and I said, ‘Well, OK, are you for going to work on this, from the ground up?’ I loved Gerald Green. He was a nice man. I just didn’t like his script.”
For one thing, Johnson played up the role of the Hungarian Jewish underground in the story. For another, he spurned NBC’s requests that a romantic subplot involving Wallenberg and Baroness Kemeny (the bewitching Alice Krige) be played up. Johnson visited the real Baroness Kemeny in France as part of his research for the film.
But don’t call “Wallenberg” a “docudrama.” That would only make Johnson mad.
“I hate the word docudrama!” he says. “I think that’s a piece of crap. You’re either a documentary or you’re a drama, but ‘docudrama’ is one of those portmanteau words that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a studio invention that allows for a lot of people to be in jobs that they don’t deserve, creating lots of importance for themselves by saying things like: ‘You can’t do that because that man wasn’t there, he was in Pomona on Oct. 14.’
“You go through all that (nonsense) when what you are really writing about is the essence of somebody’s achievement or personality or relationship. And that’s what I think we’ve achieved with ‘Wallenberg.’ ”
Johnson is asked what he thought of Abby Mann’s docudrama “The Atlanta Child Murders,” which CBS aired earlier this season. “I think it was absolutely appalling,” Johnson says. “I just hated it. I think it’s all in how it’s done, and that was done abominably.”
No word mincer, our Lamont.
Johnson’s career in television goes back to the great live days and to such filmed programs as “Profiles in Courage,” based on the book by John F. Kennedy. He says he has turned down “14 projects” since returning from Zagreb four months ago after completing “Wallenberg” and will next stage a play in Los Angeles because that’s what he wants to do.
People who do things as well as Lamont Johnson does them should be allowed to do what they want, even if the rest of us must sometimes settle for less.