- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

LOS ANGELES What, no porkpie hat?
For six seasons as police Detective Meldrick Lewis on "Homicide: Life on the Street," Clark Johnson had one perched on his head, a quirky symbol of someone pulled into the mainstream but more comfortable beyond the fringe.
Mr. Johnson is bareheaded as he lopes into the Vine Street Studios in Hollywood for an interview, but the offbeat, good-humored, don't-bother-me-I'm-doing-my-own-thing attitude remains.
He's back from an extended coffee break to continue the painstaking sound-and-music mix on the HBO movie "Boycott," which he directed.
"Collaboration is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it's irritating," he says with a laugh.
"Boycott" re-creates the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., provoked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man.
It premieres Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. as part of HBO's tribute to Black History Month. Jeffrey Wright stars as Martin Luther King; Terrence Howard plays the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy; and Carmen Ejogo is Coretta Scott King.
Mr. Johnson, born in 1955, is old enough to remember "the colored water fountain" and the "white water fountain," and he doesn't want today's generation to forget.
Yolanda King, daughter of the late civil rights leader, told a recent gathering of reporters that she endorses Mr. Johnson's "compelling" movie.
"We felt certain this is a piece that needs to be seen. It is an interpretation," she says, noting no movie can tell the entire story. "It does pull you in. It presents the story in a way that I think will inspire people to want to know more."
Mr. Johnson's goal was to show Mr. King and Mr. Abernathy as "real human beings as opposed to the icons that they became in other people's eyes."
He also wanted to pay homage to "the rank-and-file people who were handing out those pamphlets, who were doing the walking."
The son of an interracial marriage, Mr. Johnson says his parents "did the walking."
"That's my next movie, hopefully," he says, declining to reveal too much personal history.
He does, however, confess that his experiences growing up in Philadelphia affected his attitude toward "Boycott."
"Growing up with my parents getting arrested for civil disobedience and stuff… . It was fairly normal in our house to be politically aware … to understand how much these people sacrificed on an individual-by-individual basis."
Amid this activism, Mr. Johnson's mother introduced him to acting.
When he was 9, she took him to audition for a road version of "South Pacific." He got the role. It was different from singing in the church choir. "It was a lark. I just got the bug. It was a blast, but I never did kids' stuff. I never did commercials," he says. "Then, at 15, girls became way more important than Broadway lights."
He took a convoluted route toward stardom on "Homicide," the critically praised detective series, which ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999.
Mr. Johnson studied at various film schools in the United States and Canada and worked in various jobs in movie production. He was Lee Majors' driver on the 1981 movie "The Last Chase." Later he was part of the special-effects team on such David Cronenberg movies as "The Dead Zone" and "The Fly."
"I got tired of lifting stuff. I saw those lazy-no-good actors lounging about, and I said, 'Hey,' " he says.
The "Homicide" years were wonderful, he adds. He doubts it will be possible to gather the cast for another reunion movie like the two-hour special that aired last year. He credits the evolution of his directing and writing style to the "quick-on-your feet" look of the show, created by Tom Fontana.
In later years on the series, his "Homicide" character often was out of the loop, which allowed Mr. Johnson to direct. He also has directed episodes of NBC's "Third Watch" and "The West Wing," and ABC's "NYPD Blue."
His phone isn't ringing for acting roles, but work as a director has been very steady. The rest of the time, he's home in New York or Toronto as a single dad taking care of daughters Casandra, 17, and Michaela, 15.
Mr. Johnson's first understanding of what a director does came unexpectedly, back in Philadelphia in the days when he was "a real juvenile delinquent." A documentary filmmaker stopped him when he was causing mayhem in the alley behind her house.
She handed him an 8mm camera and suggested he use his energy to film what he was up to. He did and returned the film.
"A few days later, she said, 'Young man, bring your friends and come in here.' She turned the lights down. We sat down, and it was my movie. I was dumbfounded.
"She had spliced it together crudely, but all the stuff I had exposed was in frame and in focus. Up to then, I just thought movies were something they made in Hollywood, that you paid to go to. I didn't know you could make one. That was the first time I kind of went, 'I want to do that if I can stay out jail.' "

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide