Lamont Johnson dies at 88; Emmy-winning director honored for his TV work

Lamont Johnson, an Emmy-winning director who was honored for his work on the TV programs " Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” and “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story” during a wide-ranging career in television, film and theater, died of congestive heart failure at his Monterey home Sunday, his son, Chris, said. He was 88.

Johnson, known for his sensitive treatment of controversial subjects in made-for-TV movies, dealt with interracial romance in “My Sweet Charlie” (1970), homosexuality in “That Certain Summer” (1972), blacklisting in “Fear on Trial” (1975) and the civil rights movement in “Crisis at Central High” (1981).

“I find a great many things that never make it to the big screen because they’re controversial wind up on television, and done with a considerable amount of daring,” Johnson told the Miami Herald in 1992. “That seems surprising in a medium that’s supposed to be timid or anxious.”

He also made his mark with stories about World War II, including “The Execution of Private Slovik,” a 1974 TV movie starring Martin Sheen as an American soldier executed for desertion. “Wallenberg,” a 1985 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain, told the dramatic story of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped save the lives of an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and disappeared after the Soviet Red Army took control after the fall of Nazi Germany.


In addition to the Emmys, Johnson won Directors Guild of America awards for “My Sweet Charlie” and “That Certain Summer” as well as the 1988 TV movie “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” and a 1964 episode of “Profiles in Courage,” based on President Kennedy’s book.

He directed a short list of feature films, including “The Last American Hero” (1973) with Jeff Bridges playing stock car driver Junior Johnson.

Lamont Johnson got his start in the business as an actor. Born Sept. 30, 1922, in Stockton, he grew up in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College, where he performed in radio dramas. He also studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and worked as an announcer on local radio. He attended UCLA in the early 1940s before World War II.

Health issues kept him from serving in the military, but he joined the USO and performed for Allied troops in Europe during the war. He married USO actress Toni Merrill, whom he had met at Pasadena City College, in Paris in 1945.

After the war, Johnson began directing plays in Southern California. He then moved on to the new medium of television, starting with “Matinee Theatre” in 1955. He directed episodes of such series as “Have Gun - Will Travel,” “Peter Gunn” and “Twilight Zone” before finding his specialty with TV movies and miniseries.

Besides his son Chris of Pebble Beach, Johnson is survived by a daughter, Carolyn Bueno of Valencia; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.