Lamont Johnson, who has died aged 88, was one of the most successful directors of made-for-television movies in the 1970s when the medium was at its height.
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Films such as My Sweet Charlie (1970) and That Certain Summer (1972) tackled contentious social issues, attracted huge audiences and compared with some of the best dramas made for the cinema.
Steven Spielberg came out of TV movies at much the same time. Johnson, too, made some notable cinema films, including The McKenzie Break (1970), a film about German PoWs, set in Scotland, but made in Ireland, and the controversial feminist revenge thriller Lipstick (1976). But Johnson never had quite the same critical or popular success on the big screen. Returning to television, he took on Abraham Lincoln and the Kennedys in high-profile productions in the 1980s and 1990s.
Born in Stockton, California, Johnson began acting on radio. One of his roles was as Tarzan but, ironically, he was deemed unfit for active service during the Second World War and instead entertained troops in Europe. He married Toni Merrill, an actress with the same company, in Paris in 1945.
He began directing in theatre before moving into the emerging medium of television. He directed eight episodes of the cult science-fiction series The Twilight Zone (1961-63). Television was threatening to kill off cinema and even started making its own movies. The “telemovie” provided a format in which he could explore social and political issues within a longer dramatic genre.
In My Sweet Charlie, Al Freeman Junior played an African-American lawyer who attends a demonstration in Texas, is falsely accused of murder, escapes and hides in an empty holiday home. Patty Duke was the uneducated, pregnant, white teenager, who is turned out by her father and ends up in the same house. Antagonism gives way to respect and something deeper.
It was controversial from the outset, cast and crew were harassed on location and the state governor became involved.
That Certain Summer, with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, was one of the first American TV dramas to deal sympathetically with homosexuality. Warned that it could hurt his career, Sheen said: “I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people … Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was considered a career ender … What kind of culture do we live in?”
Johnson is at least partly responsible for the notion of TV movies as “issue of the week”, but issues always seemed to be raised by his stories, rather than the other way around. His approach was always lyrical rather than hysterical.
He won a slew of awards, including belated Emmys for Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story, a 1985 mini-series about the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, and Lincoln (1988), an adaptation of the book by Gore Vidal.
Johnson is survived by a son and a daughter.