The Unbelievable True Story Behind ‘Hit Man’ On Netflix—Who Was Gary Johnson?

Richard Linklater’s anticipated film Hit Man has officially arrived on Netflix. As you’re watching the romantic action comedy, you might be wondering whether Hit Man is based on a true story and whether Gary Johnson was a fake contract killer who existed in real life.

Starring and co-written by Glen Powell, the Top Gun: Maverick star portrays Gary Johnson, a psychology professor who discovers he has a hidden talent as a fake hitman, including theatrically imitating his suspects with humorous costumes, accents, and mannerisms. He starts to assume false identities to entrap criminals for the local police, but the situation becomes tricky after he meets a prospective client named Madison (Adria Arjona).

Madison wants to hire Johnson to kill her husband, but she ends up stealing his heart and igniting “a powder keg of deception, delight, and mixed-up identities,” according to Netflix’s Tudum. While talking to the streamer, Linklater described Hit Man as a movie about “identity and self and passion.”

The director continued, “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.”

Is Hit Man On Netflix Based On A True Story?

Yes, Netflix’s Hit Man is loosely based on the true story of Gary Johnson, a man who posed as a contract killer for the Houston police during the late 1980s and 1990s. Linklater came across Johnson’s unbelievable story in a 2001 Texas Monthly article written by Skip Hollandsworth.

The filmmaker had previously adapted another Hollandsworth piece for his 2011 film Bernie, but he struggled to find a central arc for the film. That changed when he met Glen Powell, and together, they began writing Hit Man, which made its debut on Netflix on June 7 after a limited theatrical release.

“I remember Glen saying, ‘Well, what if we just don’t stick to the facts? What if we cut loose once?’ ” Linklater recalled to Netflix’s Tudum.

He and Powell decided to focus on one story from the article in which Johnson declines to set up a police sting to catch a woman who’s hired him to kill her abuser, eventually leading to a romantic connection between them. However, there are several major differences between Powell’s portrayal of Gary Johnson and his real-life counterpart.

Who Was The Real Gary Johnson?

The real Gary Johnson, the man who inspired Hit Man on Netflix, was an actual college professor who was a fake hitman working for the city’s police. Johnson was the focus of a 2001 Texas Monthly story that detailed how he became “the most sought-after professional killer in Houston” whose undercover investigations led “to more than sixty arrests.”

Johnson moved to Houston in 1981, hoping to attend the University of Houston’s doctoral program in psychology. When he wasn’t admitted, he accepted a job as an investigator for the district attorney’s office. In 1989, he found his “true calling” when a 37-year-old lab tech named Kathy Scott contacted a bail bondsman and told him she needed a hitman to kill her husband. When the bail bondsman called the police, his bosses told him, “Gary, you’re our hit man.”

So, whenever the police learned through an informant that someone wanted to hire a hitman, they enlisted Johnson. The informant would introduce Johnson to the individual seeking a contract killer. Johnson, who was wired, had to get the person to explicitly state their intention to have someone murdered and then pay him for the job.

“He’s the perfect chameleon,” prominent Houston lawyer Michael Hinton told Texas Monthly. “Gary is a truly great performer who can turn into whatever he needs to be in whatever situation he finds himself. 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.”

Hollandsworth described Johnson as “one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script.”

Although Hit Man takes Johnson’s name and the general premise of his unique story of working undercover as a fake contract killer, some parts of the Netflix film are entirely fictional. For example, Linklater said that “the real Gary did slight disguises, but not to the extent that we see in the film.” Instead, Glen “pushed all of that to the max.”

The real Johnson also helped an abuse victim who was being mistreated by her boyfriend, but there is no evidence that he was romantically involved with her as the film portrays. However, Johnson, like his on-screen character, also struggled with his love life; the Texas Monthly piece mentions that he was married three times and was described as “a loner” by his second wife.

“He’ll show up at parties and have a good time, and he’s always friendly, but he likes being alone, being quiet,” his second wife told Hollandsworth. “It’s still amazing to me that he can turn on this other personality that makes people think he is a vicious killer.”

Johnson passed away in 2022.

Hit Man is streaming on Netflix. Watch the official trailer below.

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