An Interview With Kenneth Johnson
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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.”
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
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. ”
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
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
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
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
so much for your taking the time to talk with us about your career and the Bionic
series in particular.
visit Kenny Johnson’s website at:
read our coverage of the Bionic Series on DVD at these links:
The Bionic Woman – Season One
The Six Million Dollar Man – The Complete
forward to more Bionic Woman on DVD and more Kenneth Johnson work on Blu-ray
and DVD, so stay tuned!