Is Netflix's 'Hit Man' A True Story? The Real-Life Inspiration

8 Jun 2024

Glen Powell’s new comedy, “Hit Man,” is one bold, funny and embellished ride inspired by a true story.

Hit Man - Figure 1

The actor portrays Gary Johnson, a divorced philosophy professor who does tech work for the New Orleans Police Department on the side. When one undercover cop is put on a temporary leave, Gary is tasked to become the PD's fake hit man.

Gary, who lives his life seemingly unnoticed, begins to create a number of characters to catch people who are willing to hire a killer to do their dirty work. However, he gets caught up in his confident and suave Ron persona, eventually falling for a woman who wants to hire him to kill her husband.

From there, the story takes unexpected twists and gives audiences a surprise ending.

Adria Arjona as Madison, director & co-writer Richard Linklater, co-writer Glen Powell as Gary Johnson, and director of photography Shane F. Kelly.Brian Rondel / Netflix

Powell co-wrote and co-produced the action comedy with director Richard Linklater. The two tell that they took some creative liberties with the script, but “Hit Man” is inspired by a true story of an undercover hit man.

Read on to learn more about the life of the real hit man, Gary Johnson.

Is 'Hit Man' a true story?

Yes, and no. “Hit Man” is inspired by the October 2001 Texas Monthly article of the same name written by Skip Hollandsworth about the real Gary Johnson. According to the article, Johnson was the “most sought-after professional killer” in Houston, Texas — but really worked for the cops.

Linklater had read the article about 20 years ago, elaborating to, “I never forgot it. But it was kind of on the back burner, as like, ‘How would that (movie) work?’”

Powell stumbled on the article and “thought it was fascinating,” calling Linklater to discuss the possibilities of making it into a film. The actor had no prior knowledge that Linklater had been interested in adapting the article.

“I learned the history,” Powell tells, “And lots of people had optioned it over the years and tried to do stuff with it, but nobody could crack it. It was really interesting how effortless the process was. Rick and I just kept talking about it... and that’s when you know you have something special, when you can’t forget about it.”

Who is Gary Johnson?

The real Gary Johnson was raised in Louisiana by his carpenter father and housewife mother, according to Texas Monthly.

He spent a year in Vietnam working as a military policeman overseeing convoys, before working as a sheriff’s deputy and doing undercover work.

Johnson was a staff investigator for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston, and just like in the film, he did moonlight as a hit man for the police departments in and around the city.

Police wouldn't be able to arrest a person seeking a hit man until the undercover (and wired) Johnson would get the person to say he wanted someone killed and pay for the service. He would convince every new client with a different disguise. At the time, he estimated that he had investigated some 300 murder-for-hire cases since the late '80s.

Johnson, who had dreams of being a professor, taught human sexuality and psychology at a local community college.

He had two cats named Id and Ego (just like in “Hit Man”) and enjoyed tending to his garden, which according to the article was “filled with caladiums and lilies, gardenias and wisteria, a Japanese plum tree, and rare green roses” and included a goldfish pond.

“He was a big gardener, had a big garden, spent a lot of time (in it),” Linklater says, adding that Johnson “was a big classical music guy.” He also notes he would’ve liked to “have spent more time at his house” and explored his down time.

Did Gary Johnson marry his client, Madison?

Madison was a character created for the film. Adria Arjona, who portrays Powell’s love interest in “Hit Man,” tells, “Everything’s sort of true until he meets this woman. That part of it was true, he met this woman and then sort of let her go... that was like a platform that we were jumping off from.”

She said it was up to her, Powell and Linklater to “discover who this woman is or what we wanted this woman to be and what we wanted this couple to be. All of that is fictitious.” It should be noted, the wild ending where *spoilers* Madison and Gary take matters into their own hands did not happen in real life.

However, one could say Arjona's character was inspired by a real woman Johnson helped. The Texas Monthly article states that Johnson got a call about a woman who had an abusive boyfriend and wanted to find someone to kill him.

Before he helped the woman, the article noted, he learned that she was a victim of abuse and was too terrified of leaving him. Instead of setting her up, he referred her to social service agencies and a therapist to help her get out of the abusive situation and into a women's shelter, the article said.

“Just this once,” Johnson told the writer about helping out the woman instead of setting her up.

Was Gary Johnson ever married?

According to Texas Monthly, Johnson had been married and divorced three times.

His second wife, Sunny, who remained a friend, told the publication, “The true essence of Gary is that he is a loner. 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.”

In the article, he also tells the writer about his lack of long-term relationships, “I think it would be fair to say that I don’t let many people get too close.”

Where is the real Gary Johnson now?

Linklater spoke to the real Johnson “several times” on the phone and attempted to contact him as they were getting the film made.

Johnson died in 2022, according to press notes.

“I talked to him on the phone several times, and then his life was just kind of cut short,” the director says. “I was trying to get in touch with him, like, ‘Hey, the movie's happening, you got to come visit the set.’ I just thought he’d be happy and I wasn’t hearing back from him. He had this pulmonary condition (that) went downhill really fast.”

Linklater says he was happy to include a tribute to the real Johnson at the end of the film, calling him “the chillest dude imaginable.”

“Because he wasn’t that excited, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re making a film (about you).’ And he’s like, ‘Sounds good,’” he recalls. “He didn’t (seem to care). He was so chill about it all.”

As for Powell, according to the press notes, he did not get to talk to Johnson. He just listened to old recordings and read police debriefs on Johnson.

“I really wish I would have gotten a chance to meet him because Rick had a lot of reverence for Gary and who he was,” Powell said in the notes. “I think Gary died the week before we started shooting, so he never got to see a cut of the film. I’m really glad we have that tribute to him at the end of the movie, because I think he would have really appreciated the story.”

Liz Calvario

Liz Calvario is a Los Angeles-based reporter and editor for who covers entertainment, pop culture and trending news.

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