The Surprising True Story of Hit Man


AS STRANGE, TWISTED, sexy, and funny as director Richard Linklater’s Hit Man is, its biggest surprise might be the true story that fueled it. Linklater wrote the screenplay for the movie, now streaming on Netflix, with star Glen Powell. The Top Gun: Maverick actor plays Gary Johnson, a guy who purports to whack people for a price in New Orleans—except he’s really working for police as the bait in a series of sting operations to nail suspects in murder-for-hire cases. His life is upended when an abused wife seeks out his murderous services, and they seduce each other in a turbulent romantic and criminal caper.

Hit Man is a remarkable, ingeniously sly work of fiction. But it’s also inspired by and dedicated to the real Gary Johnson, who worked as a staff investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office, posing as a gun for hire in the Houston area—despite the film’s charming New Orleans setting, this was in fact a Texas story—luring those who wanted to off their husbands, wives, or bosses, and putting them behind bars.

To understand Powell’s chameleonic Gary and devilish alter ego Ron, you have to get to know the actual Gary Johnson, who died in 2022 before he could see Hit Man. Here’s an explainer on his wild life and career, and how Linklater’s movie both embraces and departs from that reality.

Who was the fake hit man Gary Johnson?

Hit Man is in part an adaptation of a 2001 Texas Monthly story, also called “Hit Man,” by the celebrated journalist Skip Hollandsworth. It introduces us to Gary Johnson, at that time a “nice, quiet man” living on “a nice, quiet street in a nice, quiet neighborhood just north of Houston.” He has soft eyes and scholarly wire-rimmed glasses. Johnson lives by himself with two cats, named Id and Ego. He also has a small pond with goldfish and an intricate garden. He enjoys reading Shakespeare, Carl Jung, and Gandhi. He is a deep thinker.

Johnson is regarded by neighbors as unfailingly polite. But he has a secret: in his bedroom, he takes calls from a black phone whenever local police have a tip on someone looking to put out a hit. He goes into hitman mode.

hit man l to r adria arjona as madison masters and glen powell as gary johnson cr courtesy of netflix


How did Gary Johnson do his fake hitman job?

The Texas Monthly story covers Johnson’s 30-year career as a faux hit man, starting in 1989, as well as a stint teaching night classes on human sexuality and general psychology at a local college. He went by many names (Mike Caine, Jody Eagle, Chris Buck) while pursuing suspects looking for a man to eliminate their problem.

“He’s the perfect chameleon,” Houston lawyer Michael Hinton said of Johnson’s disguised performances. “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.”

Johnson was able to flip the script according to whatever situation he was investigating. “If he is meeting a client who lives in one of Houston’s more exclusive neighborhoods, he can put on the polished demeanor of a sleek, skilled assassin who will not sniff at a job for less than six figures. If he is meeting a client who lives in a working-class neighborhood, he can come across like a wily country boy, willing to whack anyone at any time for whatever money he can get,” Hollandsworth notes.

Building on his psychology skills, Johnson was largely successful in this line of work by simply being the sympathetic ear his vengeful clients felt they needed. “I am always here for them,” Johnson told Texas Monthly. “I am always here to wait for their calls and listen to them tell me their dark secrets.”

As Hit Man notes in its closing moments, Johnson ultimately helped to secure over 70 arrests as an undercover agent.

glen powell adria arjona hit man


Was the love story in Hit Man real? What did the movie make up?

So, while the first half-hour or so of Linklater’s movie proves to be fairly faithful to Johnson’s backstory, the plot then takes some mischievous and fictional turns. (Hint: Spoilers for the film ahead.) Powell’s Johnson, in his persona of a hitman named Ron, gets wrapped up in a very real murder case when his client-turned-girlfriend Maddy Masters’s (played by the undeniably alluring Adria Arjona) abusive husband turns up dead… and things get even more violent when a fellow cop suspects him.

In reality, Johnson was never a murderer. “We made that part up,” the end credits of Hit Man tell us, also explaining that the real Gary Johnson was an “animal-loving Buddhist” and “the chillest dude imaginable.”

But imaginative as it is, Hit Man does pull at a factual thread in Johnson’s career here. The Texas Monthly story ends on a real-life twist, in which Johnson “did something out of character for him.” He got a call about a young woman who had mentioned to a Starbucks employee that she felt she needed someone to kill her cruel boyfriend in order to escape the relationship.

The thing is, Johnson did his research, and this woman had actually been regularly battered by said boyfriend, and was simply too afraid to try walking away. Instead of setting her up for a prison sentence, he got social service agencies and a therapist involved to help her safely leave the relationship and get shelter.

It might not be quite as cinematic as the darkly comic ending of Hit Man, but it was no less fascinating. Here was a fake hit man who, in Hollandsworth’s telling, had “just turned soft.”

“Just this once,” Johnson replied, giving the writer an “enigmatic smile.” Watching Hit Man, it’s hard not to be entranced by Powell’s own enigmatic smile, always politely hiding something.

Stream Hit Man Here


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