The Legendary True Story That Inspired ‘Hit Man’

In the late ’90s, a professional hit man roamed the streets of Houston. More than 60 people hired him to kill their professional rivals or take out their former loved ones, but not a single person died.

The “hit man,” whose real name was Gary Johnson, only played the role so that the police could secretly record the would-be killers’ confessions for evidence—and arrest them before the murders ever occurred. As a part-time investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office, Johnson stopped assassinations, poisonings, and dozens of killings that Houston residents may have come to regret. Now he’s played by Glen Powell in a new Netflix film titled Hit Man, which is based on his extraordinary life.

Johnson’s unbelievable story was first reported in a profile in Texas Monthly, written in 2001 by journalist Skip Hollandsworth. The article described a mild-mannered psychology professor in his mid-50s who spent his time feeding his cats, taking care of his plants, and reading Carl Jung. But like any costumed superhero with a secret identity, he would often don the persona of Mike Caine, Jody Eagle, or Chris Buck and become an average Houston resident’s fantasized ideal of a hit man. Just like we see in the Netflix movie, Johnson would sit at a diner eating pie. The mark would say, “That looks like good pie,” and Johnson would reply, “All pie is good pie.” He made sure that they confirmed their intent, money changed hands, and the perpetrator was caught.

After more than 60 arrests, Johnson was reportedly considered the “Laurence Olivier” of his field. “He’s the perfect chameleon,” one of Johnson’s former supervisors told Texas Monthly. “He never gets flustered, and he never says the wrong thing. He’s somehow able to persuade people who are rich and not so rich, successful and not so successful, that he’s the real thing. He fools them every time.”

hit man glen powell as gary johnson in hit man cr matt lankes netflix
The real Gary Johnson was a part-time psychology professor—and a loner who loved his cats.Netflix

In most cases, defense attorneys argued that their clients were in a “particularly stressful period in their lives,” Hollandsworth reported. They made allegations of entrapment—and claims that their clients never would have conceived a murder plot had a “professional hit man” not presented himself. Johnson begged to differ. “A lot of people who have come to see me will probably never get in trouble again,” Johnson told Texas Monthly. “But all I can tell you is to listen to the tapes of those conversations I had with them at that time. Their cognitive reasoning was so far gone when I met them that they were not going to back down. They were not going to be talked out of it. And if they had not found me, they would have found someone else to do their killing for them—and that’s what is so scary.”

In the Netflix film, Johnson’s story is adapted and altered by director Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunset), who frames Johnson’s story as less of a crime thriller and more of a romantic comedy. Hit Man asks the question What if Johnson met a woman who wanted to hire him to kill her husband, but then he fell in love with her? It’s quite the Hollywood spin on Johnson’s career, but Linklater may have been inspired by an unusual case in Johnson’s past when he chose not to arrest his potential perpetrator.

At the end of the Texas Monthly profile, Hollandsworth describes a case that he called “out of character” for Johnson. He met a woman at a Starbucks in Houston who was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. She felt that there was no escape and that the only way out was to find a way to kill him. Reportedly, she asked a Starbucks employee if they knew anyone who did that sort of job. The employee called the police—and the police called Johnson.

Glen Powell is the master of disguise as Gary Johnson in Hit Man.Netflix

This time, Johnson didn’t use his acting skills to catch this woman, who was trying to arrange a hit on her abusive boyfriend. Instead, he decided to help. According to the Texas Monthly profile, he referred her to a social-service agency and made sure she was equipped with the help she needed to safely leave her relationship and secure a place in a women’s shelter. Hollandsworth joked in the profile that “the greatest hit man in Houston has just turned soft,” but Johnson responded, “Just this once.”

The line is repeated in Hit Man, alongside many real quotes from Johnson that appeared in the Texas Monthly story. The film also references several of his most bizarre cases, including a teenager who attempted to pay him in video games, as well as multiple Houston beauties who sought to murder their older, wealthy husbands to gain access to their vast fortunes. Plus, there’s Powell’s added onscreen romance with actress Adria Arjona.

hit man official trailer
Glen Powell and Adria Arjona enjoy the ultimate fantasy romance in Hit Man.Netflix

“It’s about a lot of things,” Linklater told Netflix about Hit Man. “It’s about identity and self and passion. But on a plot level, it’s just a guy who gets in a little too deep. His passions lead him in a direction where he’s deceiving someone he’s in love with and being someone else. They have to deal with those repercussions.”

The real Gary Johnson died in 2022, just before filming began on Hit Man. He was never directly involved with the film and never saw the final cut. His cause of death was not reported. “I listened to him a lot in old recordings and read a lot of what he did in police debriefs,” Powell revealed in an interview with Netflix. “We were creating a moment in time for Gary, not where he is now. Sometimes when you meet the real-life people, you meet them in a different phase of their life and it can taint who they used to be.” Still, the actor wishes that Linklater had the chance to talk to him. “Rick had a lot of reverence for Gary and who he was,” said Powell. He believes that Johnson would have “really appreciated the story.”

You Might Also Like