Alan Johnson, a three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer whose work spanned Broadway and Hollywood – and included four scenes from Mel Brooks’ comedies that became instant, irreverent classics – died July 7 of Parkinson’s disease at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.
His death was confirmed to news outlets by his nephew Todd Johnson.
Johnson began his career as an understudy dancer for Broadway’s original 1957 West Side Story production and went on to include notable work for, among others, Chita Rivera, Tommy Tune, Bernadette Peters and Shirley MacLaine (including Emmy-winning choreography for the 1980 TV special Shirley MacLaine…Every Little Movement).
But the dance routines that are almost certainly his most widely viewed were performed far from any Broadway stage. As Mel Brooks’ go-to choreographer, Johnson collaborated with the director on unforgettable routines that became high points of the movies that contained them: The wildly, intentionally tasteless “Springtime For Hitler” (1967’s The Producers); Madeline Kahn’s spot-on Marlene Dietrich parody “I’m Tired” (1974’s Blazing Saddles, above); the Gene Wilder-Peter Boyle tap-dancing pas de deux “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (’74’s Young Frankenstein); and the Spanish Inquisition scene from 1981’s History of the World, Part I.
Johnson met Brooks through mutual friend, Annie lyricist Martin Charnin. Johnson and Charnin would win Emmy awards for the 1972 Jack Lemmon TV special ‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous, ‘S Gershwin, and this week Charnin penned a remembrance, posted on Instagram by his daughter, fashion editor Sasha Charnin Morrison, writing, “As difficult as this is to write, it gives me a sense of joy to reflect on the life, the times, and the work of Alan Johnson.”
“During the years,” Charnin wrote, “we worked together, and laughed together when our award winning television specials were being worked on, or celebrated (we did 6) and we cried together when Frank Rich or his colleagues, demolished our Broadway musicals (we did 2)…Alan was a sounding board for good ideas, terrible ones, stupid ones, and was lavish in his praise or his disdain for all of them….but I can honestly say that no mean or irreverent word ever passed between us, even when I returned my criticisms of what he was up to. Alan was civil, generous, funny, clever, and incredibly intuitive.”
In the 2002 DVD extra for The Producers, Johnson recalled the creation, with Brooks, of “Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden,” the intentionally terrible musical starring, among others, Nazis and designed by the producers within The Producers to sink any chance of Broadway success (thus allowing them to make a fortune on investment money).
“Every time we’d hit a level,” Johnson said, “we’d go broader and bigger. There were no limits to what we could do.”
Blazing Saddles had a similarly mad scene parodying splashy musicals, with Dom DeLuise making a cameo as a movie choreographer filming a big dance routine, but it was that film’s “I’m Tired” that’s the stand-out. Kahn, as a near-comatose Dietrich knock-off, croons a ballad of lethargy to a saloon full of rowdy cowboys.
Johnson’s TV credits include 1970’s George M! and the Anne Bancroft-starring Annie, The Women in the Life of a Man. Johnson won his third Emmy award for 1988’s Irving Berlin’s 100th Birthday Celebration on CBS.
Broadway credits include solo shows by MacLaine, Rivera and 1988’s Legs Diamond.
Though he built his career on dance, Johnson directed two films: 1983’s To Be Or Not To Be, produced by Brooks; and 1986’s sci-fi Solarbabies.