Who is Gary Johnson? The undercover police officer who inspired Glen Powell’s Hit Man character

Glen Powell’s latest project Hit Man, which follows the life of undercover police officer Gary Johnson, has soared to the top of Netflix’s film charts just days after its release.

Directed by School of Rock’s Richard Linklater, Hit Man tells the story of Gary Johnson (Powell), a philosophy professor who begins working for the police while posing as an assassin-for-hire to aid in sting operations.

The film explores the “somewhat true story” of the undercover police contractor’s life who unexpectedly discovers that he can pose as a reliable hitman to bring down those enlisting his “services” to kill their enemies.

Thanks to Hit Man’s shocking plot, viewers have been quick to question how closely the film stayed faithful to Gary Johnson’s unbelievable life story and whether Powell’s character is a real person.

*Some spoilers ahead*

In the film, Johnson, who is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of New Orleans, is depicted as a nerdy bird watching-enthusiast with a “forgettable face”, which enables his transition into the hitmen he poses as.

The real-life Johnnson actually taught classes in human sexuality and psychology in Texas and worked alongside the local law enforcement in Houston. But – just like in the film – Johnson would meet people soliciting hitmen while wearing a wire and wheedle out confessions.

Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man’ (Netflix)
Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man’ (Netflix)

Hit Man is based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article by the journalist Skip Hollandsworth. In the piece, Hollandsworth details how Johnson was considered “the Laurence Olivier of the field” as his investigations have led to 60 arrests of Houston locals who tried to hire him as their assassin.

While working, Johnson went under aliases including Mike Caine, Jody Eagle, and Chris Buck and was thought to be the“greatest professional hitman in Houston” by his clients. “He’s the perfect chameleon,” Houston lawyer Michael Hinton told Hollandsworth. “He never gets flustered, and he never says the wrong thing. ... He fools them every time.”

In Hit Man, Johnson is employed by a woman called Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona) who hires him to kill her abusive husband, Ray (Evan Holtzman). Rather than soliciting a confession from Masters, Johnson tells her to use the money intended to kill Ray to leave him and start a new life. But Johnson and Masters wind up sleeping together, start a relationship, and Master’s ex later emerges looking for revenge.

Adria Arjona and Powell in ‘Hit Man' (Courtesy of Netflix)
Adria Arjona and Powell in ‘Hit Man' (Courtesy of Netflix)

In reality, there is no evidence Johnson dated hit clients. The professor has been married and divorced three times and is described by his second wife, Sunny, as a “loner”.

She told Texas Monthly: 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.”

Johnson told Hollandsworth: “Doing what you do, it’s sort of hard to trust people…I think it would be fair to say that I don’t let many people get too close.”

Despite never sleeping with a client, Johnson did meet a woman who was a victim of abuse in real life and attempted to steer her away from employing him. “He learned that she really was the victim of abuse, regularly battered by her boyfriend, too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her,” Hollandsworth writes.

Powell in ‘Hitman’ (Netflix)
Powell in ‘Hitman’ (Netflix)

“Instead of setting up a sting to catch the woman and send her off to jail, he decided to help her. He referred her to social service agencies and a therapist to make sure she got proper help so she could leave her boyfriend and get into a women’s shelter.”

In Hit Man, two murders take place: Masters kills her ex husband Ray after he comes looking for her and Johnson kills a policeman who finds out about the crime and threatens to turn the couple in unless they give him a million dollars. Notably, real life Johnson never killed anyone.

Hit Man’s final title card describes Johnson as the “chillest dude imaginable” who loved animals, was a Vietnam War veteran and a practicing Buddhist. The professor was born in 1947 and died before Hit Man started filming in 2022. His cause of death is unknown.