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Category:    Home > Interviews > Interview > Filmmaking > Producing > Directing > Industry > History > An Interview With Kenneth Johnson

An Interview With Kenneth Johnson

 

Kenneth Johnson is one of the most successful Writers, Producers, Directors and Creators in TV history.  He created The Bionic Woman, gave Marvel Comics their first-ever live action hit with The Incredible Hulk, created the V franchise and made a hit TV series out of the feature film Alien Nation.  Besides his works being remade often and imitated even more, he also created cult classics like Cliffhangers!, Shadow Chasers and TV movie Senior Trip.  All his genre work is ironic as he is a scholar in literature.

 

After a very, very long wait, The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man have finally arrived on DVD in the U.S. market with plenty of extras including several with Mr. Johnson, who we caught up with on what is hopefully the eve of a good old fashioned Bionic Revival.

 

 

1) (Nicholas Sheffo for FulvueDrive-in.com:) Thanks for joining us.  The great Harve Bennett was already trying out genre TV shows (Invisible Man, Gemini Man) when he took over Six Mil, with the resulting success leading to a long career in the field of genre TV and feature films.  Are you surprised it both worked out for you that way?

 

“Obviously, Harve had a facility for dealing with shows that were somewhat larger than life and I think that’s probably why they, that Universal, invited him on to take over The Six Million Dollar Man which he obviously did very well and very successfully and I was delighted to be able to work with him.”

 

 

2) Many people still do not remember that Jaime Sommers died and was not going to come back until the public demanded it, then what was supposed to be a second two-parter to wrap up that she was alive again still led to The Bionic Woman series.  How much of that was because of Lindsay Wagner?

 

“Certainly part of the reason that the American public and the world fell in love with The Bionic Woman was because of Lindsay Wagner and her performance in it.  However, I think that with a number of other actresses we might have been able to achieve the same success because the concept was so strong.”

 

 

3) Other great actresses of the time were considered for the part, including former Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Stephanie Powers, later showing up on both Bionic series, then in the great mega-hit Hart To Hart.  Can you remember others who were considered?  We figured Pamela Sue Martin might have been too young, but maybe JoAnna Cameron (who became Isis) or Cathy Lee Crosby (briefly the first Wonder Woman)?

 

“We did consider a number of other actresses at the time including Stephanie Powers.  I think Sally Field actually was even considered, but Lindsay was the one that we really liked the best because of the great spontaneity and for Harve, she always reminded him of Judy Garland.”

 

 

4) You told a story about the Kenner executive who was thought Jaime Sommers having make-up like Barbie was fine because it was somehow a good thing to be comfortable with stereotypes.  If he had told you he wanted to add that to get the Barbie market or use make-up as a gateway for young ladies to enjoy Bionic Woman toys, would that have sat any better with you?

 

“If the Kenner Toy Company had said they wanted to appeal to the Barbie market, I would have said that’s the wrong character, that’s not who Jaime Sommers is.  She’s a proactive woman and the direction you’re going is a mistake.”

 

 

5) With Lindsay Wagner, did her personality, talent and enthusiasm open up new possibilities for the character that would have been there otherwise?

 

“In writing the character of Jaime, I certainly paid a lot of attention to how Lindsay spoke and the vernacular she used and her figures of speech.  I think that was the greatest input that she had in shaping the character.”

 

 

6) The great Jerry Fielding did the original theme song for The Bionic Woman, an underrated, classic piece of work that manages to further communicate the narrative of her success, accident and rebirth.  You were saying in one of your audio commentaries you never knew which part of the theme to quote.  Could you please elaborate?  The Kenner toy campaign, for instance, used the first part often.

 

“I was not fond of the theme that was created originally for The Bionic Woman by Jerry Fielding because it didn’t give us opportunities to quote phrases from it and use it thematically throughout the show.  It was very frustrating for me.”

 

 

7) The great Jack Cole, who created the classic opening credits for series like Rockford Files, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and especially in this case The Six Million Dollar Man, also created the classic Bionic Woman credits.  Was that your idea, Harve Bennett’s idea or the studio wisely sticking with a winner?

 

“Harve & I felt that naturally, we wanted to build off of what had been done on The Six Million Dollar Man but at the same time, give it a more personal, feminine approach.”

 

 

8) When Jaime switches from tennis star to school teacher, it is never totally explained, though I thought it was so she could keep a lower profile now that she was working with the OSI, including not having any Bionic malfunctions on international TV when she played championships.  You once said this was to make her more accessible to the audience.  Any thoughts?

 

“I turned Jaime into a school teacher as opposed to a tennis pro because I wanted her to be more homey, more hometown, more girl next door and have a lower profile, because I was more interested in doing personal stories rather than mission stories.  Also, I wanted the kids to feel that she was really accessible like they could really know her.”

 

 

9) There were a few female superheroes before Jaime, including Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Mary Marvel, The Invisible Girl (Sue Richards from The Fantastic Four) as well as dynamic female spies like April Dancer (Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), Honey West and Mrs. Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg on British Spy classic The Avengers).  Jaime was a new kind of heroine like we had never seen before, but did any of these characters offer any inspiration or influence for you on her development?

 

“None of the earlier female heroes that you mentioned had any inspirational input on The Bionic Woman.  They were all heroes from the get go.  Jaime was an ordinary girl who suddenly found herself with extraordinary powers.”

 

 

10) Arthur Rowe was a great writer and terribly underrated, penning key teleplays for episodes of Girl From U.N.C.L.E., the original Mission: Impossible and two for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (The Energy Eater, Legacy Of Terror, both of which were never broadcast again after the single 1974 – 75 season until very recently).  He had many roles and credits on Bionic Woman.  Could you share with us how he made the show even better, what he did and what he was like to work with?

 

“Arthur Rowe was essentially a very, very talented writer who really was sparked by working with me and James Parriott and we were delighted to have Arthur on board with us.  He brought a lot of seasoned credits and talent to the project.”

 

 

11) Mr. Rowe was among those who stayed when you left Bionic Woman, as you and Miss Wagner were starting not to get along and she was juggling her own fame, among other things.  Besides your departure, did the ABC/NBC split of the two series (Six Million Dollar Man stayed at ABC, while NBC picked up Bionic Woman when ABC oddly did not) cause their end?

 

“I think the failure for The Bionic Woman to continue after it’s Third Season and after I had departed has to be laid solely on the shoulders of the people who were there.  I never saw another episode after I left, nor was I involved in any way.”

 

 

12) You were gone by about the beginning of Season Three and your last writing credit is for the Rodeo episode with Andrew Prine.  Can you name your last episode involvement overall?

 

“I believe the last of The Bionic Woman episodes I was working on was the Evel Knievel episode [the late 1977 episode Motorcycle Boogie], but I left in the middle of that one.”

 

 

13) Since you have an upcoming commentary for the great two-part Doomsday Is Tomorrow episode you wrote and directed, I will skip asking about those shows, but I know you were not happy with the limits of the space-aged alien sets on Secret Of Bigfoot and thought they looked like Mystery Science Theater 3000 material.  Is it because they looked cheap and/or because they had the modernist look of futuristic architecture (budget notwithstanding) of a Zardoz, Logan’s Run or 2001: A Space Odyssey that has dated somewhat versus the post-modern dark look introduced by Alien and Blade Runner?

 

“The settings in the Bigfoot episode looked cheap because they were cheap.  It was one-hour episodic television.  I always hated the look of it and we didn’t have any money to do any better. Very frustrating.”

 

 

14) Black Magic has what is likely the best set of known guest stars on any Bionic Woman episode and I know Vincent Price was a good friend of yours.  Did you visit the set, how did that show come together and what was it like having Price, William Windom, Julie Newmar, Hermione Baddeley and Abe Vigoda in the same show?

 

“Black Magic was great fun because my pal Vincent was there and Hermione, who later worked with me on Shadow Chasers.  Julie, I had met somewhere else previously and to have William Windom and Abe Vigoda in it was a real treat.  We all got a kick out of it and so did they.”

 

 

15) Unlike Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman never featured any episodes while you were there that seemed to suggest a pilot or spin-off for another series.  Was that because it never happened or because you did not want it?

 

“There was one episode of The Bionic Woman that was designed as a potential pilot and that was the Biofeedback episode.  [Written by Mr. Johnson, this aired in early 1977 episode from Season Two].”

 

 

16) The Bionic Woman revival was a total disaster, but there was also a time when there was serious talk of doing a feature film spoof of Six Million Dollar Man.  Were you asked to participate and if you even just heard about this one before it fell through, were you surprised and shocked?

 

“I was not asked to be involved with any of the subsequent efforts on the Bionic front and that was fine with me.”

 

 

17) You said in an early audio commentary that you were trying to make The Bionic Woman look more cinematic.  How much did you succeed and how did that influence the rest of the series, as well as other series that were made after?

 

“My efforts to make The Bionic Woman look more cinematic and less like a television show had to do primarily with my work as a director on it.  Most of the other directors that came to it were so steeped in television that they were sort of focused on doing it their way and I never quite got the look I was achieving.  Later on the Hulk we got more and more into a film look and a cinematic look and I was happy with that. ”

 

 

18) And now a few quick questions about your projects after The Bionic Woman.  The two Hulk feature films have not been able to match the success of your hit TV version.  (I keep getting people telling me it is a “dumb comic book” which is not the case at all.)  Any ideas why the feature films so far did not work?

 

“The prime reason that the feature motion picture versions of The Incredible Hulk did not work is because you cannot take a CG creature [seriously].”

 

 

19) As cheaply made as it was, did you ever see the animated 1966 Hulk TV show and if so, did you like it in any way… at least its classic theme song?

 

“I never saw the 1966 Hulk TV show.  I didn’t even know there was one.”

 

 

20) Cliffhangers! was a fun series that rotated three different genres as if they were Saturday Morning Movie Theater Serials, the kind of chapter plays that Universal, Columbia and Republic made before TV arrived.  Were you happy with the show, surprised Raiders Of The Lost Ark did so well a few years later and did you ever finish all three storylines because only one wrapped up on TV?

 

Cliffhangers was enormously fun and challenging and at the time it was the most expensive one-hour show on television because we were essentially doing three shows crammed into one hour.  It was intriguing to me later on when Indiana Jones started using a bullwhip a couple of years after my hero had introduced the bullwhip back into the world again after so long a disappearance.  We did do a final episode which wrapped everything up, but NBC never aired it.”

 

 

21) The original V is another creation of yours people still talk about, though the revival has not been as good, which you were not involved in.  How do you see V as compared to John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), which have interesting common denominators.

 

“When I saw They Live back in 1988, I remember being intrigued by it, but I don’t recall it feeling that it had too much to do with V or what I had done on that.”

 

 

22) Was Shadow Chasers inspired by The Avengers, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, old Lord Lew Grade action shows (Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Department S) and/or a combination of all the above and/or something else?

 

Shadow Chasers was not inspired by any of the shows that you mentioned; it was inspired by Brian Grazer, who said he’d sold ABC the idea on doing a show about two guys that investigated unexplained phenomenon.  That was all we had and I sort of ad-libbed the whole thing in his office and that is what became Shadow Chasers.”

 

 

23) Virtually all your shows have been shot in 35mm film and give or take anything I do not know about the visual effects, seem ready for High Definition and the Blu-ray format.  You even framed the original V at 1.85 X 1 versus old analog TV’s 1.33 X 1 back in 1984.  How long had you been framing your TV shows like that?

 

“The only one of my TV projects that I directed that was framed for 1.85 was V because we had anticipated a foreign theatrical release on the project.”

 

 

24) Though you were not involved, Malibu Comics adapted Alien Nation in a new series of comic books.  Did you see it and if so, did you like it?

 

“I have never seen the Alien Nation series of comic books.”

 

 

25) Who are your favorite feature film directors? 

 

“As far as my favorite feature films directors, certainly the master is Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese director.  He is my absolute favorite.”

 

 

26) What are your fondest memories of working with Miss Wagner, Richard Anderson and Martin E. Brooks on the show?

 

“At the time I was doing The Bionic Woman, I was the youngest producer on the lot at Universal, maybe with the exception of Steve Bochco.  And the lowest paid, by the way.  And the great fun that I had was in making things up as I went along and having the opportunity to work with really talented people like Marty Brooks, like Richard Anderson, who were both always so solid and Lindsay and I had an extraordinarily creative both for her and for me [relationship]..”

 

 

27) Finally, can you think of any female heroines who have been influenced by or followed Jaime Sommers in any way, possibly Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the Alien films or even Jodie Foster in The Silence Of The Lambs?

 

”There were no female heroines since Jaime Sommers that I can necessarily point to as being influenced by Jaime, but I really liked Sigourney Weaver’s character [Lt. Ellen Ripley] in the first two Alien movies and Jodie in The Silence Of The Lambs.  Although I will never, ever understand why she went down into that dark basement alone after all of her crackerjack FBI training.  Thanks a lot.”

 

 

Thank you so much for your taking the time to talk with us about your career and the Bionic series in particular.

 

You can visit Kenny Johnson’s website at:

http://www.kennethjohnson.us/

 

You can read our coverage of the Bionic Series on DVD at these links:

 

The Bionic Woman – Season One

http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/10430/The+Bionic+Woman+%E2%80%93+S

 

The Six Million Dollar Man – The Complete Collection

http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/10569/The+Six+Million+Dollar+Man+%E2%

 

 

We look forward to more Bionic Woman on DVD and more Kenneth Johnson work on Blu-ray and DVD, so stay tuned!


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