NBC's critically acclaimed "Against the Grain" (1993-1994)
CBS's "The Client" with JoBeth Williams (1995-1996).
ABC's "The Monroes" with William Devane (1995)
ABC's "Second Noah," starring Daniel Hugh Kelly and Betsy
Showtime's "Fast Track" with Keith Carradine (1997-1998)
"Hope Island," the PAX TV series starring Cameron Daddo (1999)
Co-wrote "The Jordan Journey" (1999)
"Just A Few Savages," an upcoming movie from Impact Films.
"Doc" and "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" for PAX
Created and produced:
ABC's "Jack's Place" starring Hal Linden and John Dye (1991-1992)
NBC series "Against the Grain" (1992-1993) starring Ben
CBS's "The Client" with JoBeth Williams (1995-1996).
Co-created and executive produced:
"High Incident" with Steven Spielberg for ABC/DreamWorks
"Chameleon," starring Anthony LaPaglia and Kevin Pollak (1995),
The 1996 Disney release "The Blue Wall"
"The Jordan Journey" (1999), which he co-wrote, along with
his brother Gary R. Johnson.
"Just A Few Savages," an upcoming movie from Impact Films.
"Doc" and "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" for PAX
IN DEPTH INTERVIEW
Talking with 'Doc' and 'Sue
Thomas' Co-Creator Gary R. Johnson
By Laura Bagby
have surely heard of foreign missionaries, and you have likely heard of
domestic missionaries. But missionaries to
Hollywood? You bet! One
dynamic Christian writing pair is broadcasting their good morals and godly
principles on the small screen week after week: Gary R. Johnson and brother
Dave Alan Johnson are the masterminds between Doc and Sue Thomas:
F.B.Eye, two highly acclaimed back-to-back Sunday night PAX-TV shows.
Both hit programs are recipients of Parents Television Council
Awards for Best Shows for Families.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk with Gary by phone. (Unfortunately,
Dave wasn't able to join us for this interview.) Some of the questions
I asked Gary were show-specific, simply because I thought that you, as
a CBN.com reader, would like to know more about these Christian-based
television shows. But mostly, I centered our interview on living out the
Christian faith in Hollywood. I think you will appreciate, as I did, the
genuine faith and moral excellence in the work and words of the Johnson
brothers. I raise my hats to you and others like you making a difference
for Christ in an often back-stabbing, faith-challenging arena.
You and your brother have teamed up for a bunch of projects together for
NBC, CBS, and, of course, you now have these new shows, Doc and Sue
Thomas: F.B. Eye. Obviously, you guys must work well together seeing the
success that you have. My question is how does that work?
GARY R. JOHNSON: We grew up in a small town in Iowa, so we have very
family-oriented backgrounds. We both have the same likes, the same values,
a very similar sense of humor, so it works really quite well for us. It is
almost like there are two people thinking the same thing.
So, did you always want to do this? Growing up, did you think, Hey,
I am going to go to Hollywood?
GARY R. JOHNSON: People ask that: 'Did you know you always wanted
to be writers?' When we were growing up in this small town in Iowa, which
was kind of very much like Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, it didn't
even dawn on me, and Dave would say the same, that people actually made a
living writing those words. Then Dave came out here [to Hollywood] first,
made his living as an actor for several years, and then he segued into writing
with a partner.
I had actually been a musician traveling around the country, and then I got
interested, too, so when Dave got his first writing job, he called me up and
said, 'This is a pretty good job. You could do it. What you do is that you
just pick out shows that you like and write a spec script just to see if you
can do it, to see if you can get the voice of the characters.' So I would
do that and send them to Dave, and he said it was better than most of the
stuff he saw out there.
He and his partner got their first show that they created, and at that time,
they hired me as a writer. That was about 11 years ago. That was a show called
Against the Grain, which was also very much of a family show and a
very highly critically acclaimed show about a family in Texas where the father
is a football coach and his son is the star of the team. The quarterback on
the team was a young Ben Affleck. [Ben played 16-year-old Joe Willie Clemons.
The series ran from October 1993 to July 1994 on NBC.]
WHAT'S UP? 'DOC'!...
What kind of shows did you look at to create Doc or Sue Thomas?
Did you have anything in the back of your mind when you came up with Doc,
GARY R. JOHNSON: We did, as a matter of fact. As I said before, our
favorite show of all time is The Andy Griffith Show. There are
several things about The Andy Griffith Show. One is that you will laugh
at every episode, and in several episodes, you will get a warm feeling of
hey, that is pretty cool. The other thing is that when we were doing Doc,
back in the Andy Griffith days, for example, Andy was a really good
father figure for kids who didn't have fathers or kids who had fathers who
were not particularly good fathers. There was something that they could look
at and say I know that exists because I see it there. I may not have it in
my life, but that is what I want in my life. It seems like today in movies
and in television we don't see that kind of thing much anymore.
We wanted to do a show about a guy who could be that strong, male father
figure for kids who don't have that. Since Andy Griffith was our favorite
show, we wanted to do an Andy Griffith-type thing. PAX said, 'How about if
we do an Andy Griffith-type character, only move him to the big city as a
fish out of water?' We thought, Yeah, that would work, and decided
he would be a doctor. We wanted to make him from as remote and as non-New
York-type place as we could, so we came up with Montana. So it is Billy Ray
Cyrus starring as a small-town doctor from Montana who moves to New York and
goes to work for an HMO.
Doc Hollywood comes to mind.
GARY R. JOHNSON: Doc Hollywood is a good example. Doc Hollywood
is the reverse of it. That might have been even part of our pitch when we
were selling it -- reverse Doc Hollywood.
Did you guys have Billy Ray Cyrus in the lead at the beginning, or was
that something that came later?
GARY R. JOHNSON: That came later. We wrote the script, PAX loved the
script, so then we started casting. A bunch of people read for the part, and
we hadn't seen anyone who knocked us out at that point. Our casting director
asked, 'What do you think of Billy Ray Cyrus? He is interested in this. He
has read the script, and he would love to do it. He would love to come out
here and meet you.' What we thought at that time was the Billy Ray Cyrus from
"Achy Breaky Heart" with the ponytail down his back, and we told him, 'This
is not exactly what we had in mind, but certainly you could come out and meet
So he did. And first thing was he looked totally different. It was just the
three of us in the meeting -- Dave and Billy and me. Within ten minutes, we
knew that he was a Christian and he knew that we were Christians without anybody
blurting it out. We kind of all had this feeling that we were brought together
for this purpose because there are parts of Billy Ray that are really a lot
like this character, and him not being an actor, we knew that that is the
way it might work. He could be himself. Now, of course, going on three-and-a-half
years later, we couldn't imagine anybody else for the part. [Just a side note,
Billy Ray has a new album out called The
Does the real Sue Thomas consult on Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, or was
that just in the beginning?
R. JOHNSON: She does on certain things, and she did probably more in the
beginning than she does now. We also actually have an FBI agent out here in
Los Angeles who is also a consultant on the show. We run all the FBI cases
by him. But Sue certainly has input into the show. There are times when we
will run things by her because, after all, it is the spirit of Sue Thomas
we are trying to be true to. We know Sue fairly well, so I think, in most
instances, we know what she would do. She definitely consults on what certain
things were like and, of course, with the dog also. She comes up with story
ideas sometimes. She was in an episode of Sue Thomas:F.B.Eye. It was
in the last episode that aired last season.
Have you guys learned any sign language?
GARY R. JOHNSON: Very little, just because we haven't had time. We
do put it in every show. We try to put some sign language in so that if you
never learned anything else, and you watch the show regularly, you would learn
at least one thing each week. My wife, who is also one of the writers on this
show, took sign language a number of years ago, so she is pretty rusty. She
has picked it up quite well in the last year.
In terms of the creation process, when you two are working on stuff together,
and you are trying to get a feel for what God wants you to do, what does that
look like? Sitting down and writing a show has to be an amazing process.
GARY R. JOHNSON: We have two shows. Our lives are pretty hectic. I
have a little sign on my bulletin board that says, 'If God brings you to it,
He will get you through it.' Believe me, I look at that a lot! Our prayer
every day is 'You got us into this, Lord. You have to help us get through
it.' When I sit down and write a script, I am amazed sometimes when I see
it on TV. I will go, 'I am not this good.' The reason it turns out well is
because it is not coming from us. That is the way we feel about it.
What is a typical day like for you?
GARY R. JOHNSON: It kind of all depends. Our writing offices are just
outside of Los Angeles, but we actually shoot the shows in Toronto, Canada.
The first couple of years, we had to go up to Canada quite a bit, but we have
good people in place now, so we can stay here most of the time. There is really
no typical day. Some days might be writing a script. If not, then we are at
the office with our staff of writers coming up with stories and what we call
'beating out' stories. That is when you put it in outline form. Before you
write the script, you should have a very thorough outline about every scene
-- who is in it and what it is about and how it propels you to the next scene.
That is probably, for me, the hardest part of the process and the most important.
Then we also do the editing from here, thanks to the miracle of computers.
We also hire the actors for all of the episodes. We are responsible for all
of the music. We hire all of the directors. We have a staff of writers, but
the scripts have to pass through us. Almost always, we will always do our
pass at the end, if not more.
Is that all you do? I am teasing!
GARY R. JOHNSON: When we got the second show, we didn't know how we
were going to do it. I look back on the first year, and I am still not quite
sure how we did it.
THE BLESSING OF PAX-TV...
You just recently got an award from the Parents Television Council for
GARY R. JOHNSON: That's true -- for Doc and Sue Thomas
both. This was Doc's third season. The first season we were ranked
second on the Parents Television Council of shows for Best Shows for Families
and Touched By An Angel was first. The second year, we were actually
first, and Touched By An Angel was second. This past year, Touched
By An Angel was first, Doc was second, and Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye
was third. Touched By An Angel is a great family show also, and
I think it could have been homage to a show that was ending and had a great
run. We had no problem with that. A couple of weeks ago, we got a Gabriel
award. Doc has gotten an award from Movieguide Magazine two years in
I tell people this, and I don't know if anyone believes me or not, but I
am telling the truth when I say it: Awards like that or recognition like that
mean more to us than if we got an Emmy. I know who votes for the Emmys and
I know what their agendas are, and I know how hard it is to pick the No. 1
show of the Parents Television Council. It is not hard for us because we don't
want to make those kinds of shows that Parents Television Council would not
recognize. We make exactly the show we want to make, and PAX airs it.
There was an article a year or so ago in one of the trade magazines about
how producers in Hollywood are so frustrated and confused because they just
don't know where that line is that they can't go over. We must be the most
relaxed producers in Los Angeles because we don't want to get anywhere near
Sounds like you have a lot of freedom, which is good.
GARY R. JOHNSON: That is the great thing about being with PAX. We
totally know this audience. They know that. They trust that. Our two shows
are the highest-rated shows they have ever had on this network, so they just
leave us alone. We do them, and they air them. You can't imagine after being
in those situations, because unless you have a big hit show on your network,
the network is normally very intrusive. In our case, if we were on a major
network, probably some of the calls we would be getting would be 'This has
to be edgier. Make it a little sexier.' We are very blessed not to have to
ever deal with that. Believe me, we totally know that.
STANDING FOR FAITH
Did you have to deal with that? You worked on projects for the other networks
GARY R. JOHNSON: Yeah, you always get some of that. What we have been
able to do for the most part is just say, 'No, that doesn't coincide with
our values. We are not going to do that.' Sometimes they get mad, and sometimes
they respect you.
In fact, I just met with a young Christian guy, 27 years old, and he wants
to be an actor. He was telling me about a couple of situations he had gotten
into in Tampa. He had one movie that he had a small part in, and when it came
time to shoot the scene, the director said, 'I want you to change it to this
particular line.' He didn't tell me what the line was, but he said, 'It was
a line I felt very uncomfortable saying.' What do you do? You have 50 people
around you and they are all standing there.
It is hard to be put into that situation, but you have to prepare yourself
that that could happen. One of our mantras is that you are called to be faithful,
not to be successful.
It is good that you have that perspective.
GARY R. JOHNSON: I don't think that you are ever going to lose out
by refusing to do something that your conscience will not allow you to do.
I said two things would have happened. Either the director would have gotten
really mad and said, 'Get this guy out of here and get me somebody else!'
in which case, do you ever want to work with that director again anyway? So
you have lost nothing. The other thing he might say is 'Whoa! A guy who is
making a stand here, I kind of admire that.' Some of the time, they don't
want you to do stuff that you are not comfortable with anyway.
I am sure, in your case, having to do that has spoken volumes to those
people out there who don't know Jesus.
GARY R. JOHNSON: Dave and I have both turned down jobs for quite a
bit of money that we just knew we didn't want to be a part of. Every time
we have done it, the job offers just come flying in the door.
Are there Christians who are saying that you sold out because you stayed
in Hollywood and they don't quite understand your call?
GARY R. JOHNSON: No, I don't think we get that. Anybody who knows
our work knows that clearly in the type of thing we do, we haven't sold out.
Dave has a story, which he would tell you if he were here, but I will tell
you because I have heard it so many times I can tell it as good as he does.
There is a lot of really underhanded stuff that goes on in this business.
There is an old joke that people lie to you so often that they even lie when
telling the truth.
There was a point in Dave's life a few years ago, before we did Doc,
that he just went home one day feeling kind of beat up from having to deal
with this on a daily basis -- all of the dishonesty and all these kinds of
things that are a part of your life if you are in this business. He looked
at his wife and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore. Let's just go be missionaries
somewhere.' He is the first one to say, 'I had never thought of being a missionary.
I didn't really want to go be a missionary. I just wanted to go someplace
where I didn't have people lying to me every day.' His wife looked at him
-- this was the defining moment for him -- and said, 'Tell me one place that
needs missionaries more than where you are right now.'
So we have two hours every Sunday night to bring a little light into people's
lives and make a difference. We take that responsibility seriously, whereas
I think most people in this business do things that maybe if they sat down
and really thought about it would bother their conscience. The way they justify
that, some of them -- some of them really don't have that much of a conscience
-- is to say, 'It is not my responsibility. I am not responsible for what
people watch. Parents have to keep their kids away from the TV.' We don't
look at it that way. We look at it like we do have a responsibility.
Can you talk a little bit more about your mission and vision with these
two shows and beyond?
GARY R. JOHNSON: Some people preach to the choir, and that is fine.
You need that also. But what we like to do is do stuff that brings more people
into the 'tent.' By having Doc and Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye, both
of those lead characters are basically good, honest, God-honoring people trying
to go about their lives and do the right thing in a world that makes that
increasingly harder to do.
We don't try to cram anything down anyone's throat, and we try not to preach,
even though in Doc, for example, at the end, we always end each show
with an e-mail back to his mentor back in Montana, and we do it with voice-over.
That is where we really get to say what we want, and we quote Bible verses
in that sometimes. It is not always laced with Christianity, but it is always
good values, and sometimes it is a fairly Christian message. In one episode,
Billy Ray quoted John 3:16.
This show is seen in something like 45 countries, I think. It is seen in
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, places like that where it would be against the
law to stand on the street corner and quote Bible verses but we can do it
through our TV show.
That is pretty exciting -- missionaries at home and evangelists of a kind.
GARY R. JOHNSON: And you don't really think of it that way when you
are sitting here writing a script. When it kind of makes a difference is when
you hear things like, 'I saw your show in the Ukraine.' Television is, without
a doubt, the most powerful medium in the world these days. It can be used
for good, or it can be used for bad.
I wanted to ask you about your testimony in terms of how you came to know
Jesus. I am sure our audience will want to know.
GARY R. JOHNSON: Again, Dave and I have very similar situations here
in that we grew up in a Christian home. We went to church every Sunday. We
went to Sunday school every Sunday. We just kind of had that in our lives.
We would consider ourselves Christians all of that time, but it wasn't until
later in life when we knew what that really meant and how that would manifest
in our lives.
I think with Dave it came when he met his wife. His wife did not grow up
in a Christian family, but as a girl, she went out and looked for that and
joined a church. I think meeting her really made Dave stop and think about
what it meant.
You have years, certainly, when you drift more. When I was in college, I
wasn't a regular church attendee. I don't think either one of us strayed that
far so that it was a long trip back.
That's good that you had that heritage from your home life. What would
you tell Christians who want to go to Hollywood and do what you do? What are
the pitfalls to watch for? What would you say to someone who is aspiring to
GARY R. JOHNSON: Again, kind of what I said early. Be true to what
you know is OK and what is not OK. Sometimes you think, I don't really
want to do this. These aren't my values. But if I can just get into this door
here so somebody can see how good I am, they will hire me for other things.
It doesn't work that way. Either God is in charge, or God is not in charge.
If God is in charge, you pretty much know He doesn't want you doing this project.
That is easy for me to say now, but you can't have one foot in and one foot
The other thing I would say is to always be wary that it is not a gentle
place out here. It is really tough to get into. It is tough even once you
get into it. You just have to stay centered and focused and know who you are
and be true to that.
There are places you can go out here to meet people and be part of support
groups. There is a thing called Inter-Mission,
which is Christians in the business where they have Actor's Co-op theater.
It takes place at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Actors co-op theater is where
they have high quality theater shows that they put on several times a year.
Half a dozen times a year they will have big meetings where they all have
things going on. The two-hour movie of Doc that kicked off the series
before it was ever on TV was shown at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and there
were 500 people there. Then there is a question/answer period afterward. It
is a way for Christians to come out and at least touch base and know other
Christians in the business who are going through what they are going through.
Being part of a support network has got to be so key when you are in the
thick of things. But I bet it can be hard because you are so busy.
GARY R. JOHNSON: It is hard for us to get away. People come out here
and they get all kinds of different jobs to get them through while they are
trying to make it. It can be really frustrating. You might think you are pretty
special coming from a small town in Iowa or something, and you go to audition,
and suddenly you are seeing 30 guys who look just like you.
That can be kind of discouraging.
GARY R. JOHNSON: It can be. That is why it is important to find this
ON THE HORIZON...
Any other projects coming up that you are going to do for PAX or the other
networks? I heard that you are going to do some sort of movie? Am I right
about that, Just a Few Savages?
GARY R. JOHSON: That is a script, actually, that we wrote probably
three or four years ago, just before Doc. They have not made the movie
yet, but it is about Steve Saint. There was a story back in the 1950s with
Jim Elliot and Nate Saint, missionaries that were killed by the Auca Indians.
Nate Saint's son is Steve Saint. His aunt, Rachel Saint, went in with those
same savages and lived there for 40 years, teaching them the Word of God.
They would go spend some time there in the summer with her. Steve continued
to go back on occasion. When his aunt died in 1995, he went down for the funeral
and the leaders of the tribe said, 'Now you have to come down and help us.'
What they are trying to do now is to learn how to live in the new world. Even
though they live basically in the Stone Age, they still have to have some
skills. So Steve Saint, with his wife and two of his high-school-age kids,
moved to Ecuador to the jungle in basically Stone Age conditions and lived
there for 14 months. That is what our script is about.
The way we wanted to do that is to try and bring new people into the tent.
If you say up front that this is a really religious movie, the people who
really should see it are not even going to consider it. What we like to do
is what we do with Sue Thomas and Doc. If for no other reason,
you will have fun watching those shows.
Entertainment value is important, too.
GARY R. JOHNSON: That is what happens sometimes with Christian projects.
They try to do them on a shoestring budget. The quality isn't very good. It
can't be homework. Television has to be fun or escapist. It can't seem like
something you just have to do.
It was fun talking with you.
GARY R. JOHNSON: Thank you very much. We appreciate your interest.
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