The True Story Behind Hit Man Starring Glen Powell

Glen Powell is going undercover in his latest film Hit Man

Published Time: 07.06.2024 - 17:31:18 Modified Time: 07.06.2024 - 17:31:18

Glen Powell is going undercover in his latest film Hit Man.

The Richard Linklater-directed film, which was released on Netflix on June 7, follows Powell as a part-time staffer with the New Orleans Police Department who goes undercover as a hitman to catch criminals.

Though he has a knack for disguising himself as people’s “ideal” hitman, things hit a snag when he begins to fall for a woman who wants to kill her husband. 

While the film is filled with twists and turns, perhaps the most shocking part of the film is that it’s based on a true story. 

The screenplay, written by Richard Linklater and Powell, was based on a Texas Monthly article of the same name by Skip Hollandsworth, which details the extraordinary career of a college-professor-turned-fake-hitman named Gary Johnson.

Speaking with PEOPLE about producing recent projects such as Hit Man and The Blue Angels, Powell noted that he’s always “respected actors that had a strong hand in what they were giving the world,” and he’s excited to do that with his own career.

“I really have this moment where I can tell the stories I've always dreamed about telling, and the movies that got me into this business in the first place,” he explained. “I'm trying to find the gaps in the marketplace, the gaps that are sort of in my heart on a theatrical level, and give audiences that.” 

Here’s everything to know about the true story behind Hit Man

Warning: spoilers for Hit Man ahead. 

Johnson was born in 1947 to a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was a housewife, per Texas Monthly. He grew up in rural Louisiana, where there were 12 students in his senior class. 

After graduating, he spent a year in Vietnam working as a military policeman overseeing convoys. When he returned home, he held various law enforcement jobs, including a sheriff’s deputy and doing undercover work for the Port Arthur police department in the mid-1970s. 

During that same time, he took night courses at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, receiving a master’s degree in psychology. 

Eventually, he moved to Houston in 1981 with hopes of entering the University of Houston’s doctoral program in psychology. When he wasn’t accepted, he took on a job as an investigator for the district attorney’s office, eventually paving the way for his future career as a fake hitman.

In 1989, Johnson took on his first fake hitman job, which eventually turned into a 30-year career. Working as as a staff investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office, Johnson became a master of disguise, taking on identities such as Mike Caine, Jody Eagle and Chris Buck. 

“He’s the perfect chameleon,” Houston lawyer Michael Hinton, who previously served as one of Johnson’s supervisors, 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.”

The film notes that he assisted in over 70 arrests as an undercover agent. 

Despite his ability to morph into the ideal criminal, Johnson's real life persona was the polar opposite. As detailed at the end of the film, he was the “chillest dude imaginable” and was an “animal-loving Buddhist.” Per Texas Monthly, he lived alone with his two cats, named Id and Ego, and would spend his mornings outside, feeding his goldfish in a small pond, tending to his garden and meditating. 

In addition to working with the district attorney’s office, Johnson was also a teacher, teaching human sexuality and general psychology at a local college two nights a week.

According to Texas Monthly, Johnson had been married and divorced three times. “The true essence of Gary is that he is a loner,” his second wife, Sunny, told the publication, who noted they were still good friends. 

“He’ll show up at parties and have a good time, and he’s always friendly, but he -

likes being alone, being quiet. It’s still amazing to me that he can turn on this other personality that makes people think he is a vicious killer,” she added. 

While Powell’s character is loosely based on Johnson, Adria Arjona’s character Maddy, who serves as his love interest in the movie, was also loosely inspired by a real person mentioned in the Texas Monthly article.

At the end of the story, the interviewer mentions how Johnson recently did something completely “out of character” after getting a phone call from a woman who wanted to put a hit out on her abusive boyfriend. 

Before contacting her, Johnson did some research, and discovered she was the victim of abuse and was “regularly battered by her boyfriend,” but was “too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her.” 

Instead of putting together a sting to catch the woman and send her to jail, he referred her to social service agencies and a therapist to get proper help and get into a women’s shelter.

For Powell, those few lines are what inspired him to write Hit Man. “When a lot of other people tried to tell this story, they tried to contain it to Gary Johnson’s function within the police department,” he said in the Netflix interview. “That’s where a lot of things can be redundant since he did that for 30 years. However, there were maybe a couple of sentences in the Texas Monthly article that talked about this relationship Gary had with this woman who was actually in danger.” 

“I told Rick, ‘I think that’s the story. That’s the thread we need to pull,’” he recalled of how the script came together. “So we started digging in to see what that relationship was like and where that  went. We still had the real Gary Johnson baked into our character, but the love story is where we started taking our creative license.” 

The biggest liberty the film takes with Johnson’s story is the twist ending. (Warning: major spoilers for Hit Man ahead). 

After Maddy and Gary (who she believes to be a hitman named Ron) embark on a relationship together, things take a turn when Maddy’s abusive ex comes into the picture and tries to enlist “Ron” to kill her. Gary then informs Maddy of her ex's plan, leading her to take matters into her own hands and kill her ex. The news causes Gary to break down, revealing the truth about his identity and work as a fake hitman. 

Things take another turn when the police find out about the murder and enlist Gary to try and get a confession out of her. The two eventually team up to clear her name, however, Gary’s coworker Jasper figures out their scheme and shows up to Maddy’s apartment to blackmail them both.

To clear their names, Gary decides they should kill Jasper. After Maddy drugs him by spiking his beer, Gary puts a plastic bag over his head, suffocating him. 

Unlike the twist ending of the film, the real-life Johnson didn’t ever kill anyone. The film even makes sure to note that that part of the story was completely made up. 

Johnson wasn’t directly involved in the project, though Powell and Linklater did a lot of research on him as they ironed out the story. 

“I never got a chance to talk to the real Gary Johnson,” Powell told Netflix. “I listened to him a lot in old recordings and read a lot of what he did in police debriefs ... 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.” 

Johnson died in 2022, just before filming for Hit Man began. Powell told Netflix he really wishes he could “have gotten a chance to meet him because Rick had a lot of reverence for Gary and who he was.”Powell added that Johnson never got to see the final cut of the film, but thinks he would have “really appreciated the story.”“I’m really glad we have that tribute to him at the end of the movie,” he added.

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