Is Netflix’s Hit Man Really Based on a True Story?


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Glen Powell makes for a convincing murderer. But it’s tough to know how he’d stack up against the real Gary Johnson, whom Texas Monthly once called “the most sought-after professional killer in Houston.” Johnson himself was a devastatingly talented actor: A staff investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office, he moonlighted as a fake hit man to nab Texans seeking convenient ends to their husbands, wives, colleagues, bosses, and even—in at least one case—classmates.

In Richard Linklater’s delightful new action comedy Hit Man, Powell (already a buzzy star after his recent turns in Top Gun: Maverick and Anyone But You) plays the quiet, be-jorted Johnson as he’s swept into a romance with a woman seeking a hit on her husband. But Linklater and Powell, who co-produced and co-wrote the script with Linklater, took some liberties with the source material: a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth.

Ahead, a closer look at this “somewhat true story.”

Is Hit Man based on a true story?

Yes, at least partly. As Hollandsworth wrote for Texas Monthly, Gary Johnson was a real community college teacher in Houston who worked for the local DA’s office as an investigator-turned-actor. (Johnson died in 2022, before filming on Hit Man had begun.) But he never carried out an affair with a woman who hired him, nor did he eventually commit murder to cover his tracks. Linklater and Powell instead used the basic premise of Hollandsworth’s article to weave a larger fable about forbidden lovers and a gentle professor who inadvertently becomes a killer.

Who was the real Gary Johnson?

Johnson’s clients knew him “by such names as Mike Caine, Jody Eagle, and Chris Buck,” according to Texas Monthly. A 50-something loner with a love of gardening and two housecats (whose names were indeed Id and Ego, as depicted in the film), Johnson taught two night classes at a local Houston community college: human sexuality and general psychology. But the bulk of his work was with law enforcement, where he was considered “one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script.”

His work was simple, if unorthodox. First, an informant would tip off the police department that a Houstonian wanted to put out a hit. Then, the police would send Johnson to meet with the would-be criminal; he’d show up as the contract killer of their dreams, sometimes disguising his voice with an accent. Wired up and recording the conversation, Johnson would then present himself as a sympathetic ear long enough to get evidence of intent on tape.

“Except for one or two instances, the people I meet are not ex-cons,” Johnson told Hollandsworth at the time. “If ex-cons want somebody dead, they know what to do. My people have spent their lives living within the law. A lot of them have never even gotten a traffic ticket. Yet they have developed such a frustration with their place in the world that they think they have no other option but to eliminate whoever is causing their frustration. They are all looking for the quick fix, which has become the American way. Today people can pay to get their televisions fixed and their garbage picked up, so why can’t they pay me, a hit man, to fix their lives?”

adria arjona as madison and glen powell as gary johnson in hit man

Brian Roedel/Netflix

Did Gary Johnson really have a romance with a woman who tried to hire him?

That part’s made up. But Hollandsworth did cite plenty of “chemistry” between Johnson and his clients—and one instance in which a client “suggested they perform a certain sex act on the hood of her Cadillac.” (Johnson declined.)

Still, the likeliest source of Linklater and Powell’s romance-plot inspiration can be found at the end of Hollandsworth’s article. Once, Johnson received a call about a Starbucks employee who believed the only way she could escape her situation with an abusive boyfriend was to have him killed. After Johnson did some digging into this woman’s life, he realized she indeed 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.” So Johnson forewent the sting operation in favor of referring the woman to social services and therapy. The love story between Powell’s Johnson and Adria Arjona’s Madison begins with a similar incident in Hit Man.

Are there real hit men in Houston or broader America?

Perhaps some, but not nearly as many as pop culture would have us believe. (This is one factual detail Hit Man gets right.) The New York Times reports that the FBI works undercover on only between 70 to 90 murder-for-hire cases a year. As Johnson himself told Texas Monthly, “If there are highly qualified triggermen making their talents available to ordinary citizens, then they don’t advertise very well.”

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