Lamont Johnson seems firmly to have succeeded in his ambition to be nobody's fool. The peppery, pugnacious director of the four-hour, two-part NBC film "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story" (airing Monday and Tuesday, at 9 on Channel 4) has reached the exalted career state of being able to choose just what he wants to do and then do it, something of a luxury in his line of work.
He's accomplished, professional and proficient, whether making movie theater movies ("The Last American Hero," "One on One") or TV movies ("The Execution of Private Slovik," "My Sweet Charlie," "Fear on Trial"), and he just looks like the kind of guy they don't shove around. He sounds like it, too, with his Terminator Baritone and a hell-with-it bravado. He's in the mold of macho directors like John Huston and Howard Hawks and he's smart enough to know he's good.
The word "hero" recurs in Johnson's films, and Raoul Wallenberg was a bona fide hero in about the most impressive sense. A well-born Swedish diplomat, he risked much, if not all, during World War II to travel to Budapest and make himself an intransigent obstacle between Hungarian Jews and the Third Reich's efforts to exterminate them. He is believed to have saved as many as 120,000 lives. If Jews had saints, Wallenberg would be one.
Richard Chamberlain gives a beautiful, fully realized performance as Wallenberg in the film, which was made on location in Yugoslavia because the Hungarians were afraid to let the film company into the country where all this really happened. "They didn't want to make waves with the Russians," Johnson says. "The Yugoslavs, on the other hand, were delighted to have us because they love to thumb their noses at the Russians every chance they get."
Wallenberg was mysteriously arrested by the Soviets at the end of World War II. He has not been seen since. Some believe he is still alive. In 1981, President Reagan signed legislation making Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen, a move that was conceived as part of a plan to learn of his fate and, if he is alive, of his whereabouts.
The already multilingual Johnson learned Croatian so he could bark orders to his swarms of extras during filming. His roles were not limited to the credited ones, director and coproducer. He says he and executive producer Dick Berg (also executive producer of the forthcoming CBS mini-series "Space") are the real authors of the screenplay.
"Dick and I rewrote the script from scratch," Johnson says. "I hated the script Gerald Green wrote and didn't want to do it. And Dick said, 'Wait a minute, there's a lot of material coming in,' and 'Read this, read that,' and 'See that documentary' and I did, and I got more interested, and I said, 'Well okay, are you for going to work on this, from the ground up?' And he said, 'First of all, feed this material to Gerald Green.' And I did. I loved Gerald Green. He was a nice man, a very eager, willing guy. I just didn't like his script.
"I gave him material, told him what I wanted to do with the whole first half, which was wretchedly started; it would've never got anybody off to a start with it. It didn't have any spine or meaning to the character or the history or anything else. It sort of ambled its way in. When I got back from Zagreb the first time, I had a meeting with Gerald and he gave me the results, filled with excitement about the material that I'd given him, that he said he'd incorporated, and so improved the script during the three weeks I was in Europe. And I read it -- fortunately, not in his presence -- and got on a plane, went back to L.A., and said, 'Richard, I don't know what to do. This is not working.' He said, 'We'll do it ourselves.' We did."
However, the Writers Guild of America ruled that Green should be the sole writer credited on the film. "I think the Writers Guild of America has turned into an absolutely absurd institution," says Johnson, while allowing that it started out "with a good intention," protecting writers' contributions to scripts that get mangled in the mill.
"Some of my best friends are writers," says Johnson, rattling it off. "My prejudice is violent and vehement. I've given an awful lot of good work and further employment to people who don't deserve it simply because I've gone a good job with their material that was mediocre to begin with. And I don't mind any of that being said. Because the Writers Guild of America hates me anyway. And a lot of writers do."
In reworking "Wallenberg," Johnson says he and Berg decided to play up the role of the Hungarian Jewish underground in the story. Meanwhile, he aggressively spurned network requests that a romantic subplot involving Wallenberg and Baroness Kemeny (the bewitching Alice Krige) be played up. Johnson visited the real Baroness Kemeny in France as part of his research for the film. She later wrote him a note in French: "Je ne suis pas sa maitresse" ("I was not his mistress"). Her affair with Wallenberg was apparently never consummated. The Baron Kemeny was executed after Nuremberg as a war criminal.
Call "Wallenberg" what you will -- and it really is one of the better and more substantially absorbing long-form programs of the season -- but don't call it a docudrama. That would only make Lamont Johnson, Mr. Short Fuse himself, mad.
"I hate the word 'docudrama'!" he says. "I think that's a piece of crap. You're either a documentary or you're a drama, but 'docudrama' is one of those portmanteau words that doesn't mean anything. It's a studio invention that allows for a lot of people to be in jobs that they don't deserve, creating lots of importance for themselves by saying things like 'You can't do that because that man wasn't there, he was in Pomona.' You go through all that nonsense when what you are really writing about is the essence of somebody's achievement or personality or relationship. And that's what I think we've achieved with 'Wallenberg.' "
Johnson is asked what he thought of Abby Mann's docudrama "The Atlanta Child Murders," which CBS aired earlier this season. Funny we should ask. "I think it was absolutely appalling," Johnson says. "I just hated it. I think it's all in how it's done, and that was done abominably."
No word mincer, our Lamont. Asked for his opinion of the five films nominated for Best Picture Oscars this year, he says the only one he gave a hoot about was "The Killing Fields."
And he also says, "I think 'Amadeus' was an absolute crock. I hate it with a passion because I love opera, and Mozart, and I think it was an absolute perversion, travesty and stupidity of all times. And it only proves what H.L. Mencken said, that America is populated largely by homoboobians. But that also goes for England and much of Western Europe, which thinks it's a masterpiece. It proves that because something is reputed to be 'culture,' it is vaguely titillating to you; you feel almost sanctified when you've seen it, as though you've just been knighted or nominated for sainthood, and you feel good about yourself. And I think that people can go to see this low piece of entertainment and think they're getting Culture."
Johnson is mad for opera. Ill as a child, he spent hours in his room listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio. At the age of 19, he was a staff announcer for NBC and a struggling actor, and he used to sneak into Studio 8H, later the home of "Saturday Night Live," and watch Toscanini rehearse the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
He also worked as an announcer for a Los Angeles radio station during the war, and in that period he recalls an abrupt, though not his first, confrontation with anti-Semitism, a subject he of course returns to in "Wallenberg," and movingly.
"I remember doing a broadcast where I had to read something horrible about Jewish death camps and the Jews. And I was horrified as I read this on the air; we tore the news off the wire ourselves and read it. And the boss at the station, a big oil man, a southern colonel -- he loathed Roosevelt, called him Rosenfeld, and every time I would talk about Eleanor Roosevelt or FDR he would give me a call and say, 'I didn't know ah had a little Red in my back yard.' And so when I read this, I was almost fired. He said, 'You're puttin' that Jew propaganda on my lines? You get the hell off my lines if you're gonna mouth propadanda!' This man was in charge of the airwaves.
"That was 43 years ago. And there are still those who say, you know, 'That's pretty exaggerated, that stuff about the Jews in Germany.' Well, probably some of it is. But even if 50 percent is right, it's horrendous. So what are we arguing about, huh?
"I'm convinced there's a certain inherent anti-Semitism. I was raised ferociously anti-Semitic by a ferociously anti-Semitic father. I am absolutely horrified at the idea, and what it has led to. But it doesn't mean I have to love all Jews. There are a lot of Jews I hate. But I think I hate worse a lot of Irishmen -- and I'm half Irish -- because I grew up with such a stupid bunch of Irishmen in my family. And I loathed them with a passion. And I loathed my Norwegian father's folks, who were such clods and dumbbells and fascists."
Now on the subject of Richard Chamberlain, Johnson has nothing but praise. Or almost nothing but praise. "He is, without question, one of the most gentle men I know. He is a terrific guy to work with, although I despaired of his ever being an actor when we first did 'Dr. Kildare' together." That was back in 1961.
"It was the very first 'Kildare,' and I thought, 'What do I do with this beautiful stick?' He was so pretty, and without any noticeable emotion, and then he got to be a success, people adored him, he made lots of money and he took it and went off and learned how to act, which I think is fabulous. And I'll tell you something, the farther he gets away from playing the pretty leading man, the better actor he is.
"He told me on the last day of shooting, 'This is the best thing I've ever done.' And I couldn't be happier about it. It's certainly the best thing he's done in television. God knows, his international reputation is enormous. People in Zagreb were thrilled that he was coming. I would go out to dinner with him, we'd walk into an elevator -- women would gasp, and clutch each other, and some of them would thrust themselves toward him. I mean, he has a powerful effect on people!"
The director does leak a little secret. Bibi Andersson, the great Swedish actress who plays Wallenberg's mother in the film, is actually younger than Chamberlain. "She is. She's 49 and he's 50. Shhh!" says Johnson. "I'm not supposed to say that. He says he's 48." Forty-eight, 50 -- you and I should look so good at any age.
Johnson's career in television goes back to the great live days, and to such filmed programs as "Profiles in Courage," based on the book by John F. Kennedy. His TV movies include breakthroughs like "That Certain Summer," one of the first films to deal with homosexuality, a topic that made ABC executives so nervous they sent Johnson a memo, which he saved, warning not only that the two men in question never be seen touching each other, but also that there be no "lingering eye contact." He laughs at the memory of that.
Now he says he has turned down "14 projects" since returning from Zagreb four months ago after completing "Wallenberg" and will next stage a play in Los Angeles because that's what he wants to do. People who do things as heartily as Lamont Johnson does them should be allowed to do what they want, even if the rest of us must sometimes settle for less.
As for the big screen, Johnson has had ups and downs, one of the lowest downs being the film "Lipstick," which was roundly denounced for exploiting violence against women, but Johnson says that's not what it was meant to be. "It was a disaster. It was just a disastrous experience." He blames producers Dino De Laurentiis and Freddie Fields for interfering. "It turned out to be such a piece of crap and I started out thinking I was going to make a responsible picture about rape, and went to a lot of trouble to do just that and then Time magazine said in its review, 'Lamont Johnson's a moral leper.' That does something to your insides. I have that copy of Time magazine.
"Mike Medavoy, who used to be my agent and is now a big studio executive , used to say to me, 'When you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not.' And I have been both many times. The hills and valleys have been, you know -- I've been around so long that I can just see the profile like the hills of Rome. It's wonderful. I mean, I enjoy that because of the fact that I feel very good. I'm doing better work than ever. I'm getting to really pick the things I can do." Lamont Johnson is that rare thing, a happy angry man, and that rarest thing in Hollywood, a contented one.