Hit Man: The Real Story of Gary Johnson, Glen Powell’s Fake Assassin Khabritak

Hit Man: The Real Story of Gary Johnson, Glen Powell’s Fake Assassin Khabritak

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man.COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Buyer beware: Hit men do not exist. But for brief moments in time, they feel as if they could, thanks to the performances of men like Glen Powell and Gary Johnson—the real undercover operative Powell plays in Netflix’s Hit Man, which is now streaming.

Richard Linklater’s new film stars Powell as a version of Johnson—an actual college professor who posed as “the most sought-after professional killer in Houston” while working for the city’s police, as recounted in a very entertaining 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth. Hollandsworth recounts how Johnson moved to Houston to obtain a doctorate in psychology. But when he wasn’t admitted to the University of Houston’s program, Johnson accepted a job as an investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office. Several years into his relatively humdrum post, Johnson was plucked from his desk and thrown into the field as a faux contract killer.

The ruse went something like this: A police informant would introduce Johnson to a potential client in need of a hit man. Then Johnson, wearing a wire and often sporting an outlandish disguise, would coax the desperate person into incriminating themselves on tape by recruiting Johnson’s services. He’d assist in over 70 arrests as an undercover agent, according to the film’s credits, and be immortalized as “the Laurence Olivier” of murder-for-hire investigations, as Hollandsworth put it.

“He’s the perfect chameleon,” Michael Hinton, a Harris County prosecutor who was one of Johnson’s supervisors, told Texas Monthly in 2001. “Gary is a truly great performer who can turn into whatever he needs to be in whatever situation he finds himself.”

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Powell as a disguised Johnson in Hit Man.BRIAN ROEDEL / NETFLIX
Linklater, who previously adapted another Hollandsworth piece to film—2011’s Bernie, starring Jack Black—had long been drawn to Johnson’s stranger-than-fiction story. At the same time, he was unclear whether it would work as a film. “I love this character, but I wasn’t sure of the movie,” the filmmaker previously told Vanity Fair. “We’ve got a great character, great incidents, great moments, all these great characters, but I didn’t know if it really went anywhere.”

That changed when Powell, who starred in Linklater’s 2016 film Everybody Wants Some!!, figured out how to crack the film’s tricky third act. His pitch hinged on Johnson experiencing what is described as an “out of character” moment at the tail end of Hollandsworth’s piece. When alerted to a woman who wished her abusive boyfriend dead, Johnson did some digging and discovered that his would-be client was “regularly battered by her boyfriend, too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her,” as Hollandsworth writes. Rather than orchestrating a sting to entrap the woman, Johnson instead put her in contact with social service agencies and a therapist so that she could safely leave her relationship.

“The greatest hit man in Houston has just turned soft,” Hollandsworth told Johnson in the article. “Just this once,” he replied with what was characterized as an “enigmatic smile.”

So Linklater and Powell, who earned his first screenwriting credit on Hit Man, built their film around this mystery client. “We thought, ‘What if she called him up afterward?’” Linklater told The Hollywood Reporter. “We got really fascinated about what that relationship could be.”

Enter Adria Arjona’s Maddy, a woman who seeks Powell’s Johnson in hopes that he’ll terminate her cruel husband. “We knew Gary would have seen the girl’s photo when he was doing his case research, and if she was a pretty girl, it’d probably be pretty natural that he would pick a guy who’s pretty cool when he’s developing his undercover persona for her case,” Linklater told THR. “But then, if they have a connection and she calls him up later, he’d be stuck in that undercover persona when he wants to see her again. So the story could become this whole question about identity.”

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Powell and Arjona as Madison in Hit Man.BRIAN ROEDEL / NETFLIX
There’s no indication that the real Johnson forged a romantic relationship with the abuse victim he aided. But like Powell’s onscreen version, Gary Johnson struggled in his love life. He was thrice married and described as “a loner” by his second wife in the Texas Monthly piece. (Molly Bernard plays Johnson’s ex-wife in the film.) “He’ll show up at parties and have a good time, and he’s always friendly, but he likes being alone, being quiet,” said Sunny, Johnson’s second wife—with whom he remained on good terms—in the story. “It’s still amazing to me that he can turn on this other personality that makes people think he is a vicious killer.”

Other elements of Johnson’s life were lifted directly from the article and into the screenplay. His two cats were really named Id and Ego. The code phrase he used with clientele to confirm that they planned to enlist his special set of skills was, in fact, “All pie is good pie.” And Johnson made enemies of many a defense attorney, who argued in court that he “cleverly twist[ed] the conversation” so that their clients have no choice but to request a killing. “What I’m really there to do is assist people in their communication skills,” Johnson told Hollandsworth. “That’s all my job is—to help people open up, to get them to say what they really want, to reveal to me their deepest desires.”

For film research, Hollandsworth gifted Linklater “boxes full of interview transcripts and a lot of shitty VHS tapes of bad surveillance camera footage…showing a society lady in a nice hotel room, talking to the real Gary and trying to hire him to kill someone,” he told THR. “The recordings were bad, but you watch these moments and it’s just unbelievable. I was really amazed by just the banality of the way they discuss it all. Chatting about how they would like it done. It was like someone purchasing any other service in our consumer society.”

The director also spent time with Johnson himself, whom Linklater described as “the chillest dude imaginable” to Vanity Fair. “He was just the most nonplussed guy,” Linklater continued. “We would talk about baseball or something, but he was a man of few words actually.” As production on the film neared, Linklater said he attempted to contact Johnson again in 2022. When he heard no response, he learned from Hollandsworth that Johnson had died.

The end of Hit Man includes photos of the actual Gary Johnson. It also makes sure to note that unlike the film character—spoiler alert!—in real life, Johnson never killed anyone.


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