The real Hit Man: why the truth about Gary Johnson was even crazier than fiction

Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man
Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man - Netflix

For sheer entertainment, there are currently few films out there more uproariously watchable than Richard Linklater’s Hit Man. Not only does it feature a charismatic performance by Glen Powell – fast turning into a bona fide movie star, with this and the lead in Twisters imminent – but it also hinges on an ingeniously original premise: what if someone pretended to be a professional assassin in order to entrap the wicked, desperate or otherwise venal, into hiring him, and then handed them over to the police as soon as the deal was struck?

This might sound like the fantastic invention of a well-paid Hollywood screenwriter (the film’s witty, twist-laden script was in fact written by Linklater and Powell), but Hit Man owes its (apparent) verisimilitude to the true story of Gary Johnson, an outwardly mild-mannered figure who moonlighted, in bizarre circumstances, as this faux-assassin at the behest of the district attorney’s office in Houston, Texas.

Hit Man, which bills itself as “a somewhat true story” in the opening credits, is based on a feature by journalist Skip Hollandsworth in the October 2001 edition of Texas Monthly. It’s a highly entertaining, somewhat exaggerated version of the strange-but-true story of a man described by Hollandsworth as “the Laurence Olivier of [his] field.”

Johnson was born in 1947 and had a quiet, uneventful childhood in Louisiana, before spending a year in Vietnam, albeit as a military policeman rather than a combatant. While Hit Man suggests that Johnson had an academic post as a professor of psychology, this was a cinematic embellishment. Instead, when he returned from Vietnam he spent some time working as a sheriff’s deputy, and found hitherto untapped thespian talents.

He was most successful posing as a drug buyer. “I don’t think the drug dealers ever suspected I might be a cop because my personality was so weird to begin with,” he once said. Although it is true that he took night classes at McNeese State University, and was eventually awarded a master’s degree in psychology, he never pursued it seriously as a career path. Instead, he took on work as an investigator for the local DA’s office.

Apart from being injured in a shooting in 1986, his career was uneventful and quiet. As Johnson puts it in the film: “I know on the surface, my life looks simple – a man living alone with his cats in the suburbs.” By chance in 1989, Johnson’s life became considerably more interesting. Although Hit Man somewhat fudges the connection between Johnson’s professional and extra-curricular identities, in reality, he had been quietly working for years until one day, the local police became aware that there was a woman, Kathy Scott, who wanted “an elimination” of her husband in order to collect his life insurance policy and various other benefits.

The real Gary Johnson, who died in 2022
The real Gary Johnson, who died in 2022

The unassuming Johnson was nominated by the DA to impersonate an assassin, and adopting the pseudonym ‘Mike Caine’ and the appearance of a biker, he turned up to meet Scott. The two hit it off, flirted and she confirmed that she would pay him to kill her husband. Moments later, the police arrived and Scott was later sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Although the film suggests that all this happened almost by accident – “my life took the oddest of turns” – when Johnson had to stand in for an indisposed colleague who had been suspended from duty after being filmed beating up teenagers (Hit Man is set in the present day, when such things can cause sensations on YouTube) in fact, it was not as unlikely as it initially appeared. Johnson did, after all, have a long history of both military and police service.

Yet what the film captures both brilliantly and accurately is the way in which, once his credentials were established, this mild-mannered, solitary man became the go-to impersonator of a paid killer. Hollandsworth’s article describes his unorthodox life in in “nice, quiet neighbourhood” in Houston, where Johnson was polite but slightly distant with his neighbours, and only told them that he worked in human resources. In his bedroom, however, was a black telephone, on which he would receive very specific calls – all beginning with the words “We’ve got something for you. A new client.”

Glenn Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man
Glenn Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man - Netflix

Unbelievably, many of the most outlandish touches in Linklater’s film are drawn from reality. Whenever Johnson would meet a new client, often but not exclusively in a diner or other restaurant, he would begin the encounter with a codeword revolving around pie, depicted in Hit Man as being “all pie is good pie”. He visited one particular branch so many times for his assassin’s assignations that the DA suggested, only half-jokingly, that a plate should be named after him. And once he was in the diner, all human life would come to him, wishing only for the extinction of those who were bothering them. All told, Johnson is said to have been responsible for more than 60 arrests.

An early montage in the film, played for uproarious comic effect, shows the kinds of people who were keen to hire Johnson, ranging from a wealthy middle-aged would-be widow who promises him very personal favours should he succeed in eliminating her husband, to an angry teenager who offers Johnson a mixture of cash and video games if he will keep his mother for him.

In reality, Johnson was so adept at his job that he was able to fool Lynn Kilroy, a Houston grande dame who was married to an oil billionaire, into thinking that he was a high-class assassin. Kilroy, who had only been married a year, already loathed her husband and wanted to separate from him, but feared he would vindictively try and take their infant child from her in a custody battle. So what could be better than an anonymous, charming hit man, known only as Chris? She gave him jewellery worth $200,000 as a down payment on the murder, and his final words to her were “You’re going to be a widow.” She was arrested and sentenced to five years’ probation.

Early on in the film, Johnson says “hit men don’t exist”, before a montage of cinema’s most iconic – or vicious – paid assassins doing their work. While there have been enough cases of people paying others to carry out murders for this to be untrue, the film has enormous fun playing with the complexities of Johnson’s dual identity, while acknowledging the impact that his antics had for the field of law enforcement.

In real life, he was philosophical rather than condemnatory of the kind of people who attempted to hire him. “They are all looking for the quick fix, which has become the American way,” he said. “Today people can pay to get their televisions fixed and their garbage picked up, so why can’t they pay me, a hitman, to fix their lives?”

Johnson was a keen student of Carl Jung, who suggested that all men had a dark element that could be unleashed from within them: what he called their “shadow side”. To compound this, Johnson also had two cats called Id and Ego. The film represents this reasonably literally, suggesting the division between Johnson arises from his real-life persona as a bespectacled, nerdy lecturer and his assumed identity as a suave, charismatic assassin known as Ron. As time goes by, the ‘Ron’ persona takes over his dorky academic guise, giving him extra gravitas and likeability in the classroom.

However, the real Johnson did not have this devil-may-care persona, being instead a thrice-divorced loner who admitted to having a cynical outlook on human nature. He confided to Hollandsworth that his work had given him “a rather depressing outlook on the human condition” and that, as he gazed around a Mexican restaurant, sizing up who might be his next client “I think it would be fair to say that I don’t let many people get too close.”

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man
Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man - Netflix

The film adds plenty of dramatic invention, most crucially Johnson’s romantic entanglement with a potential client, Adria Ajona’s Madison Masters, who attempts to hire him to murder her husband, but ends up doing the job herself after a smitten Johnson refuses to get involved. While this – and a later scene in which Johnson and Masters unite to murder a suspicious colleague of his, and make it look like an accident, thereby clearing her name in the process – is good old-fashioned Hollywood invention, Johnson did have a sentimental side.

The Madison story was suggested by an incident in the Hollandsworth profile when Johnson, visited by a desperate woman who was being beaten by an abusive boyfriend, ensured that she received help from therapy and social services, rather than being arrested. When Hallsworth jokingly suggested that “The greatest hit man in Houston has just turned soft,” Johnson answered “Just this once.” Yet although it’s dramatically satisfying and richly enjoyable to see Powell’s not-so-reluctant hitman exercise his skills on a highly deserving victim, the end credits make it clear that the real-life Johnson, who died in 2022 and married and divorced three times, was not only a practicing Buddhist but “the chilliest dude imaginable – zero murders (we made that part up).”

“I think [Johnson]’d be bemused by this movie,” Linklater said recently. “Where we took it is far beyond his own life.” While many people would be delighted to be memorialised in such charming and charismatic fashion by one of Hollywood’s most exciting stars, Hit Man remains a highly enjoyable blend of loosely embroidered fact and cleverly imagined fiction. But the real-life Johnson, that unique blend of professorial detachment and quick-change thespian prowess, was a man so unusual and unbiddable, that, to quote Olivier in Hamlet, “We shall not see his like again.”