Pine Bluff native Kenneth Culvey Johnson, is Sci-Fi legend with shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and V., making him the only creator and producer with three shows on “TV Guide’s 25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends.”
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Kennetth Culvey Johnson was born on October 26, 1942, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Kenneth Culver Johnson Sr. and Helene Maye Brown Johnson. Johnson’s father was an electrical engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and helped in the building of the Pine Bluff Arsenal. Johnson and his family moved to Washington, DC near the end of World War II after his father was transferred to the Pentagon. After his parents divorced in 1946, his father moved to Little Rock while he and his mother remained in Washington, DC. Johnson spent his summers in Arkansas with his father and numerous other family members in Pine Bluff, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Johnson became interested in theater while attending Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland. So for college, Johnson headed to Pittsburgh to join the drama department at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. Originally intent on becoming an actor, Johnson soon realized his talents were better suited to directing. During his first week at Carnegie, Bill Pence, the future founder of the famed Telluride Film Festival, recruited Johnson to help him run the school’s film society. Johnson eventually took over the film society and financed his college education by setting up collegiate film societies around the country. During his time at Carnegie, he also befriended fellow theater student Steven Bochco, the future creator of L.A. Law and NYPD Blue.
Johnson married Bonnie Hollaway on February 2, 1963. After graduating from Carnegie’s Department of Drama in 1964, he and his wife moved to New York. Though Johnson aspired to direct films, he quickly took a job as television producer to support his family. In 1966, he became a producer for The Mike Douglas Show, a talk show based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1967, at just twenty-four, he replaced Roger Ailes as executive producer of the show.
In 1970, intent on becoming a film director, Johnson moved to California. Despite his aspirations, he was labeled as a talk show producer and had to take a variety of jobs to make ends meet. He worked on several game shows, including The Joker’s Wild and even produced the killer whale shows at SeaWorld. Things began to change for Jonhson when Steve Bochco encouraged him to write scripts. Bochco then introduced Johnson to the producer of a new show at Universal Studios called The Six Million Dollar Man. The show was in its first season and just happened to be out of scripts. Johnson quickly came up with a show idea, and wrote the script for The Bionic Woman episode in three weeks. The episode was a big success, so Johnson was hired as a producer. In 1976, Johnson’s creation took on a life of its own as The Bionic Woman became a separate series. Johnson was writing and producing both shows as he went through a divorce. Eventually, he left The Six Million Dollar Man and concentrated on The Bionic Woman. He met his second wife, Susie Appling, when she came to work on the series.
In 1978, Johnson brought The Incredible Hulk to television. The show starred Bill Bixby as David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his green-clad alter-ego, The Incredible Hulk. The show ran for five seasons, and Johnson produced 81 episodes.
In 1983, inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, he created V., a miniseries about an alien race that seeks to take over Earth under the guise of friendship. The two-part miniseries garnered more than 80 million viewers and was the number one show in America for the two nights it was on the air. Johnson later produced five Alien Nation movies that ran on Fox from 1994 and 1997. Johnson also produced Bride of the Incredible Hulk (1978), Steel (1997), An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), Senior Trip (1981), Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999), and episodes of the television show JAG (2004-2005). Johnson has been the winner of the prestigious Viewers for Quality Television Award, multiple Saturn Awards, and The Sci-Fi Universe Life Achievement Award. He was also nominated for Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America awards after publishing three mystery books beginning with V: The Second Generation in 2007.
Johnson is the only creator and producer with three shows on “TV Guide’s 25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends”: The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and V. He now teaches directing seminars at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
In a 2007 interview with the Arkansas Democratic Gazette, the 65 year old Johnson showed no signs of slowing down. He has such a love for his work that his wife Susie has joked about creating a little sign to hang on his director's chair that says “DNR” because, “If he falls over on the set, let him go.” “That's where he loves to be and wants to be.”
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard