TV Producer Charles Floyd Johnson
I interviewed producer Charles Floyd Johnson (an African-American) at his office in the Sunset-Gower Studios July 10, 2002.
Charles speaks in a measured cultured tone. "I did a panel once with Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker at the TV Academy. I remember her saying, 'There is no road map [into the entertainment industry] because if you talk to 25 different people in the business, you will get 25 different stories. People come from all walks of life. You don't need a Masters in Fine Arts to be in this business. It takes a certain amount of inquisitiveness, ingenuity and creativity to want to be a producer.
"I was born in Camden, New Jersey. An only child, I grew up in a small town (Middletown) of 3000 people in Delaware. My mother (had a Masters degree and was working on a doctorate) was school teacher and my father (a college graduate) was a realtor. Television was just becoming [in the 1950s] a big thing in households. I remember being fascinated by television because of how vast it was and how it connected people but I had no thought of becoming a producer. At one point, I thought about being an actor. That was easily understood.
"The whole image of television changed from the 1950s to the 1960s. We started having African-Americans as professionals on TV.
"It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to college. When I was 14, I was sent to Stoney Brooke College Prepatory School in Long Island. It was the worst time. It was all white. I had come from an all African-American segregated school. The US Supreme Court ruling for desegregation, Brown vs Board of Education, was in 1954. But by 1958, the schools still had not been integrated in that little town.
"There wasn't much to do in our small time except go to movies. My parents would never go to the movies because the theater was segregated. Blacks had to sit in the balcony."
Luke: "Did you have a sense of burning injustice about it?"
Charles: "I was aware that I didn't like sitting there. All the orchestra seats were for whites. The balcony was divided. I always sat one seat over on the white side. I was never asked to move. That was my form of rebellion.
"My parents taught me to respect people on their merits, and not on color. I had no problems at prep school. I was accepted at Cornel but I really wanted to go to an African-American school. I decided on Howard University in Washington D.C.. Thurgood Marshal, Andy Young, and Vernon Jordan went there. Four years later, I had a degree in Political Science.
"My mom became a principal (of Silverlake Elementary) when they integrated the schools in my town. The first African-American principal in my home town.
"My parents discouraged me from pursuing acting. I went to Law school at Howard. Then I served two years in Vietnam. I then worked for two years in the US Copyright office. In the evenings, I'd direct and act in plays.
"I went to a State Department conference on copyrights. I met a judge from Sweden. He steered me towards some grant money so I could come study in Sweden for eight weeks. I then spent two weeks in Paris. Three days before I was to leave, I got a call from my office asking me to attend a UNESCO conference in Paris. It lasted about ten days. I discovered there was a job available to work three years in Paris.
"I got the job. I got my security clearance. And then I said I didn't want to go. I was getting close to 30 years of age, and I felt I had to change my career.
"In 1972, I decided to move to California to pursue the [entertainment] business. I took some acting classes and classes in film and television. I ran out of money and I looked for a job. I drove out to Universal Studios. I'd read those stories about Steven Spielberg sneaking on to the lot. I went to Personnel and they had nothing to offer me but the mail room. I took it.
"Two days later, I moved up to business affairs due to the influence of a man whose wife did a play with me. I got the promotion because: 1) I was on the lot. 2) I was a lawyer. 3) I was African-American.
"Universal was making a ton of TV shows. My job was production coordinator. We were assigned to shows and different producers. We got the scripts and submitted them for legal clearances. We made deals with writers and directors. I made a deal with director John Badham.
"We went to dailies to make sure that nothing was shot that had not been cleared legally. Depending on how much the producer liked you, you got to go to rough cuts and dubbing stages. I started out working for Roy Huggins (the Fugitive, Maverick). He loved to teach. I went to the rough cut of the show and saw where the music and changes were going to be and then take the print to the network and their broadcast and standards people.
"One day I was assigned to work on The Rockford Files. I was the production coordinator on the pilot. Eight shows in, they fired the associate producer and I got a call from producer Stephen J. Cannell.
"I was still acting in my spare time. I had small parts on TV shows like Kojak where I worked with Sylvester Stallone.
"In 1978, Rockford Files won an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. Suddenly I was walking down the aisle with Stephen J. Cannell and David Chase.
"In 1980, Cannell left Universal to form his own company. I got a deal to stay at Universal as a lot producer. I worked on the pilot of Simon & Simon. In 1981, Donald Bellisario asked me to help produce Magnum PI. I didn't write many scripts. My strength as a producer is my ability to organize. I lived in Hawaii for the next six years and then two years in Florida on V.L. Stryker.
"I got married about a year after I went to Hawaii. My wife stayed in Los Angeles. We traveled back and forth a lot. Usually once a month one of us would fly over. And when we got together, we treated it like a honeymoon.
"I've worked as co-executive producer on JAG since 1995 (my third show for Don Bellisario). The arc of the show has changed. The more we went into courtroom drama, the more we went into character. So the show that had a limited male audience gained a larger female audience.
"I've been lucky in doing shows. I've worked with creators, who when they're moved on to other things, feel like they can entrust shows to me. I work well with the studios in making the shows as creative as possible while staying within budget. I get along well with people. I've been lucky to be a producer, who not a creator, has worked a long time. I've hardly ever been out of work.
"A few years ago, I got a call in 1989 from George Lucas to work on a project with him at his ranch. I thought it was a joke because I did not know George Lucas and he would not tell me what the project was. It took me three months to make it up to the ranch because I was busy. We spent a lot of time together. It was a project about the Tuskagee airmen, the black fliers. He wanted an African-American producer and director on it. Some of his research people kept getting my name.
"We worked on that for five years. Then in 1995 HBO made a movie on it. It was close in style and structure to what we were doing as a feature and we abandoned it."
From Imdb.com: "During the Second World War, a special project is begun by the US Army Air Corps to integrate African American pilots into the Fighter Pilot Program. Known as the "Tuskegee Airman" for the name of the airbase at which they were trained, these men were forced to constantly endure harassment, prejudice, and much behind the scenes politics until at last they were able to prove themselves in combat."
Luke: "In this wonderfully liberal industry, have you often run into racism?"
Charles: "I am often asked that question. Not really. I always feel that I am obliged to talk about it this way. I am aware that it is there. Even though it is not that pronounced in my career, I've seen it in other ways. I'm always vigilant about it."
Luke: "Vigilant about it, how?"
Charles: "Racism is so pervasive in most societies that a lot of times people don't even know that they have racist attitudes. If you're an African-American, you're probably always attuned to it and sometimes see it when it is not there. I am aware of it in casting and in how sometimes African-Americans are portrayed. I try to make sure on JAG that we have a good ratio of minorities on the show.
"I'm working on a book about 50 years of African-Americans in front of and behind the camera. I'm looking at how the medium has impacted the image [of African-Americans in American society] and how the image has impacted the medium. I think the image has been driven by the business of television and not much by the social conscience of the people who make television. It's about what sells and not about what's racially balanced or racially correct or politically correct."
Luke: "According to the ratings I've seen, whites don't watch shows primarily about blacks and blacks are less likely than whites to watch shows primarily about whites."
Charles: "It's a real problem. There has never been a successful drama with an African American man or woman in the lead. There have been attempts to make an interracial sitcom. They don't work.
"Sitcoms tend to play to the lowest common denominator. I was never a fan of The Jeffersons. I didn't like the George Jefferson character. But he was no different than Archie Bunker. The difference is that there were another 35 sitcoms out there about white people and only another three about African-Americans, and they all lean towards stereotypes. To succeed, you often have to pander... And the audiences often don't laugh with but at.
"A lot of our young African-American writers and directors get their breaks working on these [lowest common denominator] black sitcoms. They learn their craft on them but they write what they're expected to write.
"There's a limiting artistic thing there. You'd like to think that people can break out of their roles. You'd like to think that an African-American or Hispanic writer could write a play Lion in Winter. And sometimes I think they don't because it is not their experience and they don't think it is expected of them.
"In the sixties and seventies, African-Americans wrote a lot of plays about the black experience fighting whitey. But by the eighties, there was a dearth of interesting African-American playwrights. They didn't feel that they had the subject matter and the audience to do it so they weren't writing broader content.
"I've come to the conclusion that we watch what relates to us."
Luke: "Why does it matter if whites watch white television and blacks watch black television?"
Charles: "Because it means we are segregated."
Luke: "What's wrong with that?"
Charles: "I'd like to do think we could do something more politically correct and universal."
Luke: "People live in segregated neighborhoods. The older people get, the less they like to be around people different from them."
Charles: "We don't like to admit that. To African Americans that feels like a regression. And African-Americans go to white movies and watch TV shows like Seinfeld but it doesn't work in reverse."
Luke: "You're about the only African-American producing white shows."
Charles: "There's Arthur Fornay who works on Dick Wolf's show [like Law & Order]. Kevin Arkadie co-created New York Undercover. Many work in features.
"When I first started at Universal, I'd get calls from executives at the studio when they wanted to do a black project and they wanted a black director or writer. I could reel off the list. I can't do that now, which is great."
Luke: "When did you start using the term African-American?"
Charles: "About 1992."
Luke: "When did you stop using the word 'negro'?"
Charles: "A long time ago. By college. I was at Howard with Stokely Carmichaell, who invented black power. He ran across th campus one day with his fist in the air, screaming, 'Black power!' We became much more into saying 'black.'"
Luke: "You live in a white neighborhood."
Charles: "Yes. No problem. When I walk into a room, I'm often the only black man."