Gary Johnson: What Happened to the Undercover Hitman?

Netflix’s black comedy film ‘Hit Man’ is partially based on Gary Johnson, a college professor who worked as an undercover hitman to arrest people who had been plotting murders. Gary initially garnered the spotlight through Skip Hollandsworth’s profile of him, which was published in Texas Monthly. The feature describes him as the “greatest professional hitman in Houston.” He had saved the lives of around sixty individuals by getting hired to kill them. After putting an end to his career as a fake hitman, Gary stayed away from the limelight for a long while. His death was a shock to the director Richard Linklater and lead actor Glen Powell, who turned his life story into the movie!

Who Was Gary Johnson?

Even though Gary Johnson is known as a hitman, the description is technically wrong. He was never an assassin or a murderer. Gary worked undercover for Harris County DA’s office in Texas. His job was straightforward but dangerous: make his “clients” open up about their murder plots on record and receive the money for the assignments. “What I’m really there to do is assist people in their communication skills,” he told Skip Hollandsworth for the Texas Monthly profile. “That’s all my job is—to help people open up, to get them to say what they really want, to reveal to me their deepest desires,” he added.

Once these clients’ “darkest desires” were recorded through a hidden wire, along with the money they used to hire Gary’s hitman persona, the authorities could build a case against them and save their targets. As the movie depicts, he had rescued around sixty people from their murders. Gary’s clientele ranged from prisoners to influential individuals. The latter group included Lynn Kilroy, the former vice president of the Houstonaires Republican Women and the wife of Billy Kilroy, who had an immense oil fortune to his name. When the talk of divorce surfaced between the couple, Lynn sought the service of Gary, allegedly fearing the loss of her husband’s fortune and the custody of their child.

Gary’s conversation with Lynn led to her arrest for solicitation of capital murder. The renowned member of the Houston upper class is only one of the several people who ended up in the undercover officer’s trap. ‘Hit Man’ gets several things right and wrong about him. As seen in the black comedy, he was indeed a professor who taught human sexuality and general psychology. Gary’s ex-wife Alicia’s claims about him match what Sunny, the real-life counterpart’s second wife, had to say about him. “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,” she told Hollandsworth.

However, Gary never murdered anybody. The killings of Ray and Jasper are fictitious, along with his romantic life with one of his clients. Even though the real hitman asked a woman to choose another option than murder to deal with her abusive partner, they never got together as Glen Powell’s character and Maddison “Maddy” Masters do in the black comedy.

Gary Johnson’s Obscure Death

Gary Johnson died in 2022. As of now, his cause of death hasn’t been publicized. Even Richard Linklater didn’t know the inspiration behind his next film had died while he was developing ‘Hit Man.’ He only found out about the demise when he reached out to Skip Hollandsworth to ask the journalist about his unanswered communications with Gary. “I thought, okay, the film is actually happening now, and I wanted him [Gary] to come visit the movie set. But he wasn’t returning my calls or emails. So I reached out to you, and then I got a text from you saying, ‘Rick, call me immediately. Something terrible has happened,’ the director told Hollandsworth regarding learning about the former undercover hitman’s death.

The death seemingly was a surprise to Glen Powell as well. “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. I think Gary died the week before we started shooting, so he never got to see a cut of the film,” the actor told Netflix. Linklater and Powell pay homage to their inspiration through a tribute to Gary at the end of their 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,” the actor added.

After getting divorced thrice, Gary was a lone wolf towards the end of his life. He believed that his hitman job and his solitude were interconnected. “I only trust dead people and my enemies because I know where they stand,” he told The Washington Post about the difficulty in forming a relationship, adding that he had to be concerned about his friends, relatives, colleagues, and the people he slept with because they could “sneak up and cut” him.

Read More: Hit Man: Where Was the Netflix Movie Filmed?