George Clayton Johnson, who died on Christmas Day, was my friend.If his name doesn’t register, most likely you’re not particularly a fan of science fiction or vintage television. If you were, you’d know that George was the co-author of the novel Logan’s Run (with William F. Nolan), that he wrote the first broadcast episode of the original Star Trek, and that he created several of the most memorable segments of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. He also co-wrote the original story for Ocean’s 11, which became a Sinatra Rat Pack classic that has since been remade by Brad Pitt and Co.—with two sequels to boot.George, who I first met through correspondence in the late ’90s and then in person in Los Angeles in 2002, was unlike any writer I’ve ever encountered. But then, he was unlike any person I’ve ever encountered. Warm, witty, and completely without the kind of ego one might expect of someone so celebrated, he was utterly down-to-earth—even as his high-flown philosophical musings could seem at times to have been beamed in from some other galaxy. Part sage and part crackpot—sometimes both in the same sentence!—he never failed to beguile me, whether in multi-hour telephone conversations or on the single unforgettable afternoon I spent interviewing him in his little house in Pacoima, where he had bright Christmas lights blinking everywhere inside in the middle of August. I was proud to be chosen to introduce him as the keynote speaker at the Twilight Zone Convention in 2002, prouder still to have been given the opportunity to write the introduction to his wonderful collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories, and perhaps proudest of all to have gotten this marvelously talented man—who wrote little in his last years—to pen an original short story for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse. George was never prolific, which partly accounts for his not being as famous as some of his contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. But make no mistake: at his best he was fully their equal. If you doubt me, look up his classic Twilight Zone episodes “Nothing in the Dark,” starring a very young Robert Redford as Mr. Death, or “Kick the Can,” a beautifully evocative story of old age written when George was in his early thirties. When Steven Spielberg decided to remake one episode of the series for the ’80s Twilight Zone: The Movie, he had 156 to choose from. The one he chose was George’s “Kick the Can.” That’s how good George Clayton Johnson was.In later years, regrettably, George and I mostly fell out of touch. The last time I heard from him was a telephone call around 2008 in which he told me he wouldn’t be able to contribute to my Richard Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend. I didn’t ask him about it; he was nearly eighty by then, and I didn’t want to pry. We chatted for a while, just everyday things, and that was it. Over the next few years I thought of picking up the phone to call him now and then, or dropping him a letter, but I didn’t. I heard through mutual friends that his health was failing, which made me sad—but also that at conventions he attended he had been praising my collection Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories, which made me feel roughly ten feet tall.
And then came the news, on Christmas Day. George Clayton Johnson was one of my heroes. He always will be.#