GLEN POWELL has followed up his smash hit rom-com Anyone But You with yet another love story – except this one is filled with a bunch of would-be murderers.

In Hit Man, he plays Gary, a mild-mannered teacher with an unexpected side-hustle: pretending to be a fake gunman-for-hire to aid the New Orleans police trap potential killers. All’s going relatively well until he meets and falls in love with a woman who wants to hire him.

As the Richard Linklater-directed film begins, the following words flash upon the screen: “What you’re about to see is a somewhat true story inspired by the life of Gary Johnson”. So what is real and what, like Gary pretending to be a ginger-haired English contract killer, is fake?


Who is Gary Johnson?

To find out who Johnson is, we need to go back to a 2001 Texas Monthly long read by writer Skip Hollandsworth that Hit Man – written by Linklater and Powell – is based on.

Johnson grew up in rural Louisiana, and there were only 12 people in his high school. After graduating, he spent a year in Vietnam working as a military policeman overseeing convoys, and then on his return, he worked as a Sheriff’s deputy.

In the 1970’s, he took part in some undercover work for the Port Arthur police department, where he pretended to buy drugs off dealers. Meanwhile, he took night classes at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana, earning his master’s degree in psychology, and in 1981 he moved to Houston.

It was in the sprawling Texan metropolis that he worked for prosecutors on gathering evidence and finding witnesses for trials. His roles then increased to uncovering stolen vehicles and in 1986 he suffered gunshot wounds to his left leg and foot during a stakeout.

But in 1989, when the police received word that a woman had been heard talking about putting out a hit on her husband, they called in Johnson to set her up. He would assume the identity of a hit-man, record her saying she wanted her husband killed, and receive money as validation that it wasn’t just an idle threat, but a contract for a killing.

A remarkable amount of people across decades considered killing people. According to the Texas Monthly article: “Johnson estimates that he has investigated some three hundred murder-for-hire allegations since the late eighties. Although most of them turn out to be unfounded (‘We get a lot of calls about a guy who was drinking too much in a bar and talking about a certain son of a bitch he wished was dead,’ Johnson says), his undercover investigations have led to more than sixty arrests.”

According to one source in the story, it was Johnson’s convincing characters and believable demeanours that led to so many successful arrests: “In law enforcement circles, he is considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script… Johnson is the Laurence Olivier of the field.”

The articles reveals more about Johnson and his similarities with the on-screen character. He taught two days a week at a local community college: On Mondays, human sexuality and on Tuesdays, general psychology. He was indeed a cat lover – his two cats were called ID and Ego – and he was married and divorced three times.

Despite telling the journalist: “I think it would be fair to say that I don’t let many people get too close”, Johnson then went on to tell a story about a woman who came to him to kill her boyfriend, but he realised she was being abused by him, so instead he encouraged her to leave him, get social services help and find a woman’s shelter instead. This became the basis of the character of Madison (Adria Arjona) in the film.


Powell told Netflix about this moment in the feature: “We found this one line in the article about this woman who was meeting Gary Johnson [asking him] to kill her husband, and Gary didn’t let her incriminate herself — he struck up a friendship with her. That was the basis of, What if we took that kernel and mined it for all it was worth? That [was really] the beginning of our creative process: What if then he’s basically playing a fake hit man? She doesn’t know his identity. You have this great story built on a lie.”

What happened to Gary Johnson?

At the end of the film, there’s a credit that says “dedicated to Gary Johnson 1947 – 2022”, alongside pictures of the real Johnson in various guises: Vietnam vet, college teacher, animal loving buddhist, chillest dude ever, undercover agent with over 70 arrests and zero murders (“we made that part up”, the producers added on screen, confirming that the real-life Johnson never murdered anyone in his life).

Johnson died just before filming for Hit Man began. Powell told Netflix he wished Johnson could “have gotten a chance to meet him because Rick had a lot of reverence for Gary and who he was.” He added that Johnson never got to see the final cut of the film, but thinks he would have “really appreciated the story.”

“I’m really glad we have that tribute to him at the end of the movie,” he added.

Hit Man is now streaming on Netflix.

A version of this story originally appeared on Esquire UK.


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