Obituary: George Clayton Johnson, novelist and script writer

George Clayton Johnson, novelist and script writer, best known for writing futuristic tale Logan's Run. Picture: Contributed
George Clayton Johnson, novelist and script writer, best known for writing futuristic tale Logan's Run. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 10 July, 1929, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Died 25 December, 2015, Los Angeles. Aged 86.

George Clayton Johnson was the colourful science fiction author behind the futuristic novel Logan’s Run, which was later turned into a Hollywood film, and also penned episodes for The Twilight Zone, the first ever episode of Star Trek and co-wrote the storyline for the heist, Ocean’s 11, which enjoyed box office success on two occasions.

Known for his fierce independence, passion and creativity, his thought-provoking work, which combined entertainment with metaphysics and often addressed aging and mortality, was to prove enduringly popular.

Having achieved much of his success in his 30s and 40s, in later life, Johnson, who had more than a passing resemblance to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, with his straggly beard, long-hair and broad-brimmed straw hat, became a much loved yet mystical figure at science fiction and fantasy conventions, attracting fans of all ages.

“For me, fantasy must be about something, otherwise it’s foolishness...” Johnson explained. “Ultimately it must be about human beings, it must be about the human condition, it must be another look at infinity, it must be another way of seeing the paradox of existence.”

Born in a barn outside Cheyenne, the small state capital of Wyoming, in 1929, George Clayton Johnson’s parents, Charles and Laura, divorced shortly afterwards. Initially living with his alcoholic mother, he was later made a ward of court; he and his half-sister were then raised by relatives and family friends. After being forced to repeat a year of schooling, he dropped out completely at the age of 14 and undertook a series of menial jobs before training as a draftsman.

He served as a telegraph operator and draftsman in the US Army from 1946-49, based mainly in Panama, before enrolling to study architecture at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), under the G.I. Bill, a law that provided educational benefits for returning servicemen. After a brief period, he quit and spent the next few years travelling around the country working as a draftsman before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career. There, he met Lola Brownstein and the couple married after just two weeks, in October 1952.

In 1959, he received his first onscreen credit for a story entitled “I’ll Take Care of You” which aired on CBS’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Thereafter, Johnson’s work began to regularly appear in magazines such as Playboy, Los Angeles, The Twilight Zone Magazine, Rogue and Gamma, and he began to write scripts and stories for TV.

His first major film success came in 1960. While he was the proprietor of Café Frankenstein, a famous counter-culture coffee house-bookstore on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, California, he co-wrote a story with Jack Golden Russell about a heist from five Las Vegas casinos on the same night. The story became Ocean’s 11, starring Frank Sinatra as Danny Ocean, and included other members of the ‘Rat Pack’, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. Upon hearing about the script, Sinatra said, “Forget the movie, let’s pull the job!”

Although other writers produced the final screenplay, Johnson’s screen credit made a difference. In 2001, Ocean’s 11 was remade and again enjoyed success, with George Clooney in the title role alongside Brad Pitt; two sequels followed.

Soon after, Johnson, a member of the Southern California School of Writers (SCSW), which included Theodore Sturgeon, William F. Nolan, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, was introduced to Twilight Zone producer Rod Serling who paid Johnson $500 for an unpublished short story, which he adapted for the 13th episode of the seminal sci-fi series; he then commissioned another seven between 1959-64.

In “The Four of Us Are Dying,” aired on the first night of the 1960s, Harry Townes portrays a con man, who can change his face to appear as anyone he chooses. Another first-season episode was “Execution” about a scientist (Russell Johnson) who uses a time machine to pluck an outlaw about to be hanged in 1880 and bring him the present day.

Johnson later wrote the Twilight Zone scripts for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” revolving around a bank clerk (Dick York, later of Bewitched fame) who discovers he has telepathic powers; “A Game of Pool,” with Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters meeting in the ultimate high-stakes contest, of life or death; “Nothing in the Dark,” starred Robert Redford as Death; “Kick the Can,” about elderly folks who get to become children again - this also featured in the 1983 movie The Twilight Zone: The Movie; and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” with Ed Wynn as a man who feels his fate is inextricably linked to his grandfather clock.

Johnson believed that, “The Twilight Zone played just as much a part in the renaissance transformation of the ‘60s as bright-coloured clothing, rock music and marijuana did… It helped to jack people up to a higher level.”

Through the SCSW, Johnson became good friends with the prolific sci-fi and horror stories writer Beaumont, who wrote 22 episodes for Twilight; he also penned the novel and screenplay for the Roger Corman film ‘The Intruder’ (1962), starring future Star Trek leading man William Shatner, with Johnson playing a redneck and Beaumont a school principal in a fictitious southern town.

With another member, sci-fi legend and mentor Bradbury, Johnson co-wrote the Oscar-nominated animated short Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962). Johnson also wrote for other television series, including Route 66 and Kung Fu.

In 1966 he wrote “The Man Trap,” the first televised episode of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, which was broadcast that September.

In this episode, the now iconic main characters were set out. The crew have to deal with a shape-shifting alien which has come aboard the USS Enterprise, almost killing Captain James T Kirk, played by Shatner.

The following year, Johnson, in collaboration with William F. Nolan, wrote the dystopic novel Logan’s Run, set in a post-apocalyptic world in the 23rd century in which young people lead hedonistic lives until they turn 21, when they are compulsorily executed.

The novel spawned Michael Anderson’s 1976 film adaptation of the same name starring Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Richard Jordan and Peter Ustinov. Logan 5 (York) a “sandman” whose role is to seek out the “runners” who try to escape their fate becomes a runner himself when the master computer shortens his life by four years.

He seeks refuge in the outside world with fellow escapee Jessica (Agutter) where people are allowed to grow old and die in their own time.

Although critics were indifferent it became a cult classic. There was a short-lived TV spin-off starring George Harrison. More recently, there was talk of a re-make and Johnson had been developing a sequel called Jessica’s Run.

The book and film represented a turning point not only for Clayton but for the emerging science fiction and fantasy genre in the US, helping to elevate it from “geek” status to serious drama.

Johnson died on Christmas Day after battling bladder and prostate cancer for some time. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, his son and daughter.