KENNETH JOHNSON INTERVIEW
Executive Producer - 'Alien Nation'
Interview by Julian Knott - December 2006
Courtesy of Twentieth
The TV series began very soon after the
original movie. Did work on the TV series only start after the film’s
theatrical release, or was it being developed before then?
The TV series was created after the
original movie. I had no contact with anybody who was involved with the
original movie. My friend Harris Catleman who was running Fox Television
at the time asked me if I would take a look at the movie. I was not really
excited about it, because I had done so many ‘larger than life’ and
‘alien’ things in the past with my mini-series V being pre-eminent among
those, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it.
But when I look at the movie, at first I
felt that it was just a ‘drug movie’ disguised with an alien context, sort
of “Miami Vice crossed with Coneheads”, but there was one scene in the
movie where James Caan picked up his alien partner Mandy Patinkin and
Mandy waved at his family - his wife and two little kids standing on the
porch – that was the only time you saw them in the film. But when I saw
them in that scene, a little bell went off in my head and I realised,
“Wait a minute, that’s what this picture should be about, it should be
about what it’s like to be the world’s newest minority. This should be a
story, not about cops and robbers, but about culture clash of one society
trying to blend into another one, what it was like to be the latest people
to arrive in a minority situation in a new country.” And that’s what
inspired me to do the new series.
What changes were made to make Alien
Nation suitable for a TV audience (the movie is quite – for want of a
better word - ‘sleazy’)?
At the outset, Fox believed that with Alien
Nation, they had a show that could conceivably be sort of “Lethal Weapon
with aliens”. I convinced them that that was the wrong way to go, that it
was much more interesting to do an alien version of In the Heat of the
Night, where we wouldn’t be so concerned with police procedurals as we
would be with the relationships that the cops had with each other, the
conflicts that arose because of their cultural differences, and also what
their personal lives were like as regarded the inter-relationship of the
two species. That, to me, was the core of the show that would allow it to
go on and on and be much more interesting than just another cop show.
Both lead parts were re-cast for the TV
series. Were James Caan and Mandy Patinkin invited to reprise their roles?
Were you looking for Caan / Patinkin “types” when you cast Eric Pierpoint
and Gary Graham?
The leading roles were recast for the
series because James Caan and Mandy Patinkin both had feature careers –
Mandy at the time had not yet ventured into television and neither had
Jimmy. And I was looking for a pair of guys that I felt would be
appropriate to take on those roles.
I actually made the very first call to Eric
Pierpoint whom I had worked with before – I had met him in 1984 when we
did a pilot on a series for NBC called Hot Pursuit – the fugitive as
husband and wife – and Eric impressed me then as really just a powerful
actor. He was classically trained at Catholic University in Washington DC,
he’d had a lot of theatre work and was really a consummate actor in terms
of being able to just get everything you wanted out of a line of dialogue
and a character. He also had a wonderful sort of ‘zen factor’ which I felt
would be very important for somebody who was going to have to spend an
hour and a half getting into that makeup every day and another forty-five
minutes at the end of the day getting out of it, and spend his life
literally with his hands over his ears. That’s what it sounds like when
you’re inside one of those heads. It’s very difficult to hear and I needed
an actor who could not only do the role, but also would have the stamina
to survive that sort of *chuckles* abuse that we’d have to put him
Gary was selected from a number of actors
that I read, and he was just absolutely the standout guy. Once Gary had
read for the role, all of us who were involved with the casting felt that
he was absolutely the right guy to put playing opposite Eric. He gave us a
wonderful ‘streets’y sense, a wonderful sense of reality and also he’s
just an excellent actor.
You had to add several characters to the
movie’s relatively simple Sykes / Francisco pairing. Can you tell us about
giving George a family, and how those roles were cast?
I had to flesh out the Francisco family and
Susan, his wife, was of critical importance to us. George of course is the
one that is trying to fit in the most among the humans. Susan has a little
more struggle with it. The daughter Emily, I was anxious to have her be a
young woman, a young girl at that time, who was really very open and ready
for connection to human society. But I also wanted a spoiler among the
family and that was the idea of casting Sean Six in the role of Buck as
the troubled teenager – we used to refer to him as ‘Alien Without a Cause’
– and who was still into the most Tenctonese ways of doing things. He was
the one who still spoke in their language of Tenctonese which incidentally
was a language created by my daughter Juliet and she also created the name
of Tencton – the planet that they came from.
The other supporting players were…of course
Terri Treas as Cathy, the alien across the hall, which gives Matt a real
push-pull situation. Here is someone he’s attracted to, and yet at the
same time he’s a little queasy about being involved with an alien. And
that was one of the pivotal relationships in the series.
And in addition to them, of course, there
was Albert Einstein, the sort of low-IQ janitor who worked in the police
station. I called my friend Jeff Marcus who I had worked with on a TV
series called Senior Trip back in 1981 and whom I loved as an actor. At
the time he was doing theatre, regional theatre, and I rang him up and
said “Jeff, I’ve just written a great part for you if you want it, it’s a
retarded alien janitor!” And Jeff jumped at the role.
And then in casting the police captain I
was looking for someone who could bring a real sort of edge to the piece,
and also some interesting colours and I remembered Ron Fassler (who had
also been in Senior Trip when he was a kid for me back in 1981) and he
read for the role and got it immediately. They helped to form the spectrum
of people that would give us a wonderful cast to work with and players to
fill out the roles.
How did you find the writers for the
series? Presumably you had to find a lot of scripts very quickly? Was it
difficult to find writers who wouldn’t deliver routine Miami Vice-style
buddy cop stories?
Any Executive Producer in television will
tell you that the hardest chore is always finding a writing staff that can
fulfil the job. While we were doing the pilot, Fox went ahead and gave me
a script order for several additional episodes and I contacted my friend
Diane Frolov who had written a number of episodes for me of other shows,
including the sequel to V back in 1984 and she was very happy to do so.
Her husband, Andrew Schneider, who had been
my story editor on The Incredible Hulk and had then gone on to produce a
number of shows himself and was currently on The Fall Guy at the time said
hey, he’d really like to write one too, he really loved the idea, and even
if we ended up putting Diane’s name on it (since he was under contract
But as we got into it together, we realised
there was a possibility of getting Andy out of his contract on the other
show so that he could come and join me. And he and Diane became…I think
Andy was the Supervising Producer on the show and I gave Diane her first
Producer credit, to which she said “Oh no no no, I can’t do that” and I
said “Yes, you can!”
The two of them began writing together as a
team – generally they had written individually in the past – and when they
started writing together there was just this remarkable synergy that
happened and the scripts were just truly extraordinary. Plus I was gifted
with Andy’s skills as a producer on the show so that I could be the
‘admiral’, making sure the ‘fleet’ was sailing in the right direction and
Andy and Diane would take on the roles of the ‘captain’ of the ship and
fight the day to day battles.
I also knew I needed more people to help
write the piece and I read a number of scripts that were submitted to me,
but I found myself looking toward comedy writers more than one-hour
episodic drama writers because I wanted a sense of humour in the piece. I
was struck by the writing of Tom Chehack who had done a number of good
scripts for other shows and produced a couple of other shows. Tom had a
wonderful sense of humour about him that I really felt would be an adjunct
to the series and I was lucky enough to get him to come on board.
We also hired a pair of story editors,
Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle who were young guys starting out
at the time, and they did some wonderful work for us as well and that was
the core of the writing team. Steve and Craig went on to create The
Pretender and a number of other shows, I think they did The Flash
and have become quite successful as writer-producers themselves.
Andy and Diane went on to do Northern
Exposure and rack up a whole lot of Emmy wins as well as a number of other
projects. They are currently working on The Sopranos right now. But I was
very lucky to have such an extraordinarily gifted group of writers working
together on the show.
You directed the original TV movie. Did you
try to establish a particular look and tone for the series? Alien Nation
is very different to V, which dealt with a similar concept?
Yes, one of the things that a
producer-director does when creating a TV movie is to try to establish a
particular ‘look and tone’ that will carry on into the series. Certainly I
was looking to do that with the Alien Nation pilot.
There was a certain grittiness about it – I
was anxious to have it fit into the real world of Los Angeles, and have
perhaps just a little bit of noir-ish quality to it as well. In addition
to that though, of course I was anxious to establish the overall feel of
the piece and the sense of humour that existed as well – the bi-play
between my two lead guys particularly, but as well between Cathy Frankel
and Matt Sykes as well as the family dynamic.
It’s very exciting and as a writer – it’s
funny, I always write something and I know exactly how I want it to sound
and how exactly I want the tonality of it – the line to be read with a
certain pace and a certain style and texture – and then I would get on the
set and these actors would read these lines sometimes 180 degrees
different from what I had in mind and it would be better! *chuckles* It
was always a wonderful revelation to discover that what I had written was
not nearly as good as what they had turned it in to! That’s part of the
push-pull and fun of working with such a talented group as we did on this
The TV series dealt with numerous issues
raised by having an alien culture becoming integrated into our own
(discrimination, disease, etc). Were there issues that you think the
series dealt with particularly well? Are there episodes you’re
particularly proud of?
I was raised in a very bigoted,
anti-Semitic, household, and so a good deal of my work in film and
television has become devoted to breaking down intolerance and prejudice.
What I saw with Alien Nation was the wonderful possibility of being able
to deal with those issues head on and deal with discrimination in a way
that ultimately wouldn’t offend anybody because we were talking about an
alien race as opposed to a black or Hispanic or Jewish or Asian minority.
The interesting thing was, as the series
went on, we got awards from virtually all of the different minority
communities because virtually every minority, including gays and lesbians,
felt that Alien Nation in some way was about them. One of my favourite
letters came from a black doctor in Detroit who wrote that when he saw our
show was going on he said he was really angered because he thought ‘What
do we need another show about aliens for? Why don’t we do a show about the
black experience?’ He said, “but then I saw your show and realised that it
was about the black experience.” That was an element that we tried to
thread through virtually all of the episodes – sometimes as minor elements
of a story, sometimes as elements that were right in front.
There were so many episodes that made me
proud of the show that it’s hard to pick out one or two because it was a
constant feeling that the writers and I all shared, where we would always
say OK, what makes this uniquely an Alien Nation episode, a show that
could not appear on any other series? And that always drew us back to our
thematic underpinnings of the cultural clash and the idea that we all need
to work together.
Some episodes of the series dealt with the
Newcomers’ somewhat unusual sexual practices. Did this – or any other
aspect of the series – raise any problems with the Network censors?
I realised early on that since we were
dealing with an alien culture, I had a wonderful opportunity to explore
not only their psychology, but their physiology. I remember walking into
the office one day and saying to Andy and Diane and Tom, “What if it takes
three aliens to procreate as opposed to just two?”
Immediately everybody’s heads started
spinning and we thought of the wonderful possibilities which lead to the
great script that Andy and Diane wrote called Three to Tango in which it
was revealed that a third person (in this case the dim-witted janitor
Albert) was required to catalyse the female before she could be fertilised
by her husband, which was handled as a ceremony in the living room rather
like a briss in the Jewish tradition.
Sykes of course, the human, just flips out,
and it gave us a wonderful opportunity for comedy to play the two cultures
against each other because Sykes says ‘I can’t believe you’re so exciting
about some guy boffing your old lady right in front of everybody!’ and
George swooning and saying ‘Oh yes, I cherish the memories!’
So it was a wonderful opportunity for us to
show the way that cultures do clash and bang into each other and great
conflicts that came from it. Of course, when I came up with the idea, the
fact that on earth male seahorses carry the female eggs to fruition and
it’s actually the male that gives birth to them as it were, that also
stimulated Andy and Diane’s imagination immensely and we ended up doing a
show which was called Real Men which is one of my absolute favourite
episodes of the series.
I remember Andy and Diane coming to me and saying, Look, why don’t we do a
show where the theme is “what makes a real man?” and we’ll set it in the
world of bodybuilding where these guys are all pumping up so that they can
be all muscular and everything. But then we’ll learn that in order to pump
up to the extreme they end up using drugs that take away their potency
sexually which is very confounding to George because he doesn’t get the
fact that guys try to be strong and pump up and yet they lose their
sexuality and Matt, on the other hand, can’t understand when George says a
line like “Oh yes, giving birth is when I finally feel fulfilled as a male
So again, it gave us a wonderful chance to
develop the characters and to have conflict and drama and humour among
them. It was a natural organic outgrowth of what the series was to begin
Incidentally, it did not raise any questions with the censors. They all
thought it was a wonderful idea!
When did you know that there wasn’t going to be a second series of
Nation? What were Fox’s reasons for cancelling the show? Didn’t they
later admit that they’d made a mistake?
The series ended on a cliff-hanger where we
had all kinds of threads that were hanging loose, not the least of which
that Susan and Emily had been poisoned and were facing death, because we
absolutely anticipated that the show was going to go on and on and on, we
all could see that it had a wonderful life in it and that we’d only begun
to explore the possibilities of the characters. It was stunning when I got
a call from Peter Churnin saying that they had not been able to find room
on the schedule for it, that in fact Barry Diller had cancelled all of the
Fox one-hour series because he felt that he could do better with comedies.
A year later, incidentally, his comedies
had all tanked so badly that Fox had to give their Monday nights back to
their affiliate stations because they didn’t have any programming to put
on and Peter got up in front of the Television Critics Association and
publicly apologised for cancelling Alien Nation, said that it was one of
the biggest mistakes that they had ever made.
I was on the phone the next day saying
“So…?” and he didn’t think that it fit into their schedule again at that
point but I pounded on the door for a couple of years, and finally, with
the help of Steve Bell and Kevin Burns, managed to convince Lucy Salhaney
who was then running Fox TV that there was a lot of life left in Alien
Nation and they said “Well OK, go ahead and do a TV movie that will pick
up the threads and pay off the cliff-hangers and we’ll see how it works.”
So we did a movie called Alien Nation: Dark Horizon
did exactly that and became, incidentally, one of the highest rated, if
not the highest rated, made-for-TV movies Fox had ever done. It was a gift
from the gods for us because we all got to get back together and play
together again and we had such a wonderful time doing it and everyone came
running back to do it.
The success of the show, not only with the
critics but with the audience, inspired Fox to buy two more movies and
then ultimately two more after that, which will be released as a box set
on DVD this coming summer. It was a glorious experience.
Alien Nation returned after a four year
gap as a series of TV movies. What was happening during that hiatus? What
led to Alien Nation’s return? Were the TV movies adapted from left-over
series two scripts?
We did have several scripts remaining that
had been written but not produced and they did become the basis of Dark
Horizon and later of Body and Soul – two of the movies that we did
subsequent to the series demise.
There also had been several novelisations
of Alien Nation scripts that saw the light of day and also Fox was anxious
to have the movies look a little bit bigger than the episodic shows, since
they were going to be stand alone TV movies, so the budget was fortunately
increased somewhat and allowed us to do pictures that were somewhat
In some regards, I would almost preferred
to have gone on with the series instead, where we weren’t trying to save
the world every time or have such grandiose stories to tell, but on the
other hand it was so wonderful just to be able to go back and reclaim all
of the material that we had not been able to see to fruition. It was
certainly a joy to be working together again. I can’t emphasise to you
what a wonderful experience it was for all of us.
This last July we had a little reunion here
at my house of all the Alien Nation cast and I wonder how many casts still
like to get together ten years after their last movie so that they can
laugh and hug and enjoy each other and reminisce? It was a wonderful
experience. There were no jerks on Alien Nation, everybody was terrific
and they all loved each other a great deal.
Between the Alien Nation TV series and
the Alien Nation TV movies you worked on a Sherlock Holmes TV movie. Can
you tell us a little about your involvement with that – was it a pilot for
a TV series? If Sherlock Holmes Returns had spun off into a series,
would there have been no Alien Nation TV movies?
While I was struggling
to get Alien Nation revived after the series was cancelled, I came up with
the notion of bringing Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes into the 20th
century. He would still be the same enigmatic, eccentric, sexist,
cocaine-addicted genius, but he’d be a hundred years out of sync. I
thought I could have some great fun with that.
I pitched the idea to my friend Jeff
Sagansky who was running CBS at the time. He loved it and I wrote the
script, probably the most difficult script I ever wrote. I discovered why
Conan Doyle killed Sherlock off after the first thirteen stories, because
it’s… you say, ‘Ok, I’ve got to write a script for a genius!’ and then you
start to write and you realise ‘Wait a minute, how do you do that if
you’re not a genius yourself?!’
The only consolation I had was that Conan
Doyle had the same travails when he did it! There were days when I would
honestly be in physical pain trying to figure out how to make a piece work
in the Sherlock Holmes tradition.
It was designed to be a franchise of TV
movies. Jeff and I saw it as an on-going series of TV movies as opposed to
a one-hour episodic series, although ultimately that was considered as
well. It ended up being quite a wonderful experience and a very fun film
to do. We were going to go forward but Sagansky left CBS at the time and
it sort of got lost in the shuffle, as things do under those
Even in the midst of doing that, if the
opportunity for Alien Nation had presented itself sooner, I would have
crawled across broken glass and found a way to do it. I loved Alien Nation
so much, as did everybody who worked on it.
While you were making the Alien Nation
movies, did it ever seem likely that the series would be revived?
There were a couple of times when we talked
about reviving the series because the movies were so successful, but on
the other hand Fox was enjoying such success with the movies that they
didn’t want to mess with it. They loved the fact that they could count on
the big audience response and the big critical response from the movies.
It’s interesting to note that we never got a bad review. Astonishing! I
mean, I’ve done some very successful stuff in my career, but I don’t think
anything was as universally loved by the critics as Alien Nation was.
Are there any plans to release the Alien
Nation TV movies on DVD?
There are plans to release the Alien Nation
movies on DVD! They’ll probably be released as a box set of five in the US
mid-2007, I’m told. I’ve already done commentaries for the first two
movies, we’ve put together some behind-the-scenes footage, some gag reels,
and we’re just now in the process of organising the special materials for
the last three movies which may even include a roundtable discussion with
all the cast members, much like happened at my dining table this last
July. It’s an exciting prospect and we’re all happy that Fox is going to
release the movies on DVD.
If you were dealing with the same concept
in 2006, do you think your portrayal of 350,000 members of a benign alien
species arriving on Earth would be very different?
I think if we were to pick up Alien Nation
as a concept today, the portrayal would not be very much different. I
think its circumstances that we still face. Indeed, the immigration issue
not only in the United States but around the world, has become in the
forefront of so many peoples’ thinking and I think that to be able to
explore the cultural differences and the involvement of a relatively alien
or foreign group into an established country is a timeless story that
never goes out of date.
It’s been almost a decade since the last of the
Alien Nation TV movies,
The Udara Legacy. Have we seen the last of Alien Nation?
I’ve gone back to Fox a couple of times and
suggested it would be worthwhile to revive Alien Nation, particularly
given the news-worthiness of immigration and such today, but they just
don’t seem to be interested in trying to go forward with it as a TV series
at this point. Of course, Fox no longer has a TV movie night, indeed none
of the networks do any more. It’s become very frustrating and difficult to
get any long-form project launched. But if they said ‘Would you like to do
it?’, I’d be there in a second!
What can you tell us about the series you’re working on now,
When I was putting together the DVD release
of my original four hour mini-series V for Warner Bros, I was on the
dubbing stage, because I re-mastered the sound of the whole thing, and at
the last scene I was watching my leading lady Fay Grant send a message
into deep space trying to contact an enemy of the visitors, hoping that
‘the enemy of my enemy would be my friend’. Over the years a number of
people have come to me and talked about trying to remake or redo or
revisit V somehow and I never had really wanted to because I felt that I
had done it pretty well the first time, it had become something of a
television classic, and I didn’t want to try to fix something that wasn’t
But I got to thinking when I watched that
scene, "Gee, what would happen if indeed somebody did get that message –
our distress call – and did come to help? Or did they come to help?"
I thought, "Hey, that could be really
interesting" and sold NBC on the idea of doing a four-hour mini-series
that would pick up the show twenty years later, pick up the story and the
characters and everything, and show what has happened to the earth in the
last twenty years.
NBC sort-of got it, and we went forward and
ultimately Warners and I ended up pulling the project away from NBC and we
are endeavouring to set it up elsewhere as a four-hour mini-series.
It’s quite a strong script that I’m very,
very proud of. As a matter of fact, it’s going to be published as a novel
which I have written. I turned it into a novel because I liked the
characters and the stories so much. Tor Publications is going to publish
it as a hardcover novel in 2007. Then they’ll follow up with a mass-market
paperback edition in conjunction with the mini-series when we get it made.
We are still pressing to get it made. It’s
a tough market right now because, as I said, the long-form television has
dried up in most regards and V is an expensive project. This is a $19m –
$20m four hour mini-series. But Warner Home Video has recently come into
the loop because V has become such a successful title for them over the
years selling vast amounts of DVDs and bringing in huge amounts of
revenue. They are helping as well, so we are determined to find a way to
get the mini-series made and hopefully we’ll be able to talk about that
In the meantime, the novel will be out in
the middle of next year so the fans will be able to get a preview of what
the miniseries will be like.
I will keep updating and putting the latest
information on my website
www.kennethjohnson.us and anybody who has anything to comment about,
about any of my shows, is more than welcome to contact me through that
website and I do answer all of the mail that I get from the thousands of
fans around the world to whom I am so grateful and appreciative that my
work has stimulated their imagination.
With special thanks to Kenneth Johnson
Thanks, too, to Victoria for arranging the
interview; and to Sandra M
Alien Nation - The Complete Series is now available on DVD
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