Arnold H. Johnson; TV, Film Actor, Star of ‘Putney Swope’


Arnold H. Johnson, the character actor who played the title role in the 1969 motion picture “Putney Swope,” has died at the age of 78.

Johnson, who also appeared regularly in the popular television series “Sanford and Son,” died Monday in Los Angeles.

Brooklyn-born and orphaned at the age of 4, Johnson graduated from New York University in drama and began his career on off-Broadway stages.

He was still working in New York City when he was cast as Swope in the edgy comedy, directed by Robert Downey, about blacks taking over a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Complimented as “hilarious” in “Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide,” the film featured delightful spoofs of commercials.


In a typical snippet of dialogue, a character pitched a product to Johnson as Swope: “I got this great window cleaner. Cleans good and doesn’t streak. Smells bad, though. Cleans good, but smells bad.”

Johnson replied, “As a window cleaner, forget it. Put soybeans in it and market it as a soft drink in the ghetto. We’ll put a picture of a rhythm and blues singer on the front and call it Victrola Cola.”

Shortly after that “Putney Swope” appeared, Norman Lear brought Johnson to Los Angeles for a running role as George Hutton in the television sitcom “Sanford and Son,” which ran from 1972 to 1977.

Johnson also played characters who reappeared frequently in other series--Fletcher Thomas in “Family Matters,” Jeb Pulliam in “Homefront” and Uncle Albert in “Buddies.” He also guest-starred on “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “Highway to Heaven,” “Amazing Stories” and “Matlock.”


Never interested in being a leading man, Johnson set out to become a character actor. After advertising maven Putney Swope, he played a patient in “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” a bum in “Honky Tonk Freeway,” a tattoo artist in “Racing With the Moon,” an inmate in “Weeds,” a butler in “Sunset,” a janitor in “The Seventh Sign” and Grandpapa in “Menace II Society.”

The actor is survived by his wife, Betty Heater Johnson; three children from a previous marriage, Ann, David and Jamal Johnson; and three stepchildren, Christopher, Lisa and Linda James.

A memorial service is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place.