Rafer Johnson, a Los Angeles legend who won the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal, helped organize the 1984 Games in L.A. and wrestled the gun from Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, died today at his home in Sherman Oaks. He was 86. His family confirmed the news but did not provide a cause of death.
Born on August 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, Johnson moved with his family to the San Joaquin Valley town of Kingsburg when he was 9 and became a four-sport high school star while working as a cotton picker with his father and siblings. The town’s middle school now is named in his honor.
Johnson already was a local hero at UCLA, where he would become student body president but faced racial discrimination, when he began to draw national attention as a decathlete. He broke the world record in 1955 and was the favorite at the Melbourne Olympics the following year but was hampered by injuries and settled for the silver medal.
Two years later, amid the Cold War and the Space Race, Johnson faced Soviet decathlete Vasili Kuznetsov — who had broken the American’s world record earlier in 1958 — in the first joint track meet featured the United States and the USSR, held in Moscow. Billed as the event to crown the World’s Greatest Athlete, Johnson set a new world record in defeating his Soviet opponent.
He played basketball for legendary UCLA coach John Wooden in the late 1950s but was injured in a 1959 car crash, threatening his hopes for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. But he recovered and would square off again Kuznetsov, but this time Johnson’s main competition was from Taiwan’s Chuan-Kwang “C.K.” Yang — his teammate and training partner at UCLA and longtime friendly rival.
The two dominated the field — including Kuznetsov, who’d win the bronze medal — and the tight competition came down to the final event, the 1,500 meter run. Johnson turned in a personal-best time and would run second to Yang, but he beat his rival overall, setting another world record and turning in the best score of his decathlon career. He also was the flag bearer for the United States at those Games and was the first Black captain of Team USA.
He would be inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2009 and receive the UCLA Medal — the school’s highest honor — in 2016.
Johnson’s international notoriety led him to small acting jobs in film and TV throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s. His small-screen credits included The Six Million Dollar Man, Dragnet, Police Story and Quincy, M.E., and he appeared as a DEA agent in Licence to Kill, the 1989 James Bond film that starred Timothy Dalton as Agent 007.
He also worked for a while as a sports reporter at KNBC-TV Los Angeles during the mid-’60s and served on the national boards of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965-68 and AFTRA from 1967-73.
“There are truly no words to describe the phenomenal man Rafer Johnson was,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said Thursday. “It is rare to find someone so versatile and driven, with as much passion and dedication to his athletics, career and to his community. His breadth of knowledge and fearlessness made him a strong leader. We send our condolences to his family.”
Johnson met then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1961, and the two became close. When Kennedy announced his presidential bid in 1968, Johnson was an omnipresent figure at rallies and other events.
And he was there at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy, then the junior U.S. senator from New York, addressed a cheering crowd after winning the California Democratic Primary. Shortly after midnight, as the politician exited the main ballroom through the kitchen, he was shot multiple times by Sirhan Sirhan.
Johnson and others rushed the shooter, and KRKD-AM reporter Andrew West was recording a segment when it happened, and is heard amid the post-shooting chaos shouting to Johnson: “Get the gun, Rafer, get the gun!” He did, and stuck the pistol in his pocket — delivering it to police hours later.
Kennedy died the following day.
A despondent Johnson would turn his focus to the California Special Olympics — with which he would be associated for life — and would lead Special Olympics Southern California as its president for nearly a decade through 1992.
The International Olympic Committee awarded the 1984 Summer Games to Los Angeles in 1978, and Johnson soon was asked to join Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley organizing effort. When the L.A. Olympics opened, a 48-year-old Johnson was the surprise final torch bearer who scaled the Coliseum steps to light the cauldron during the Opening Ceremony.
It was a defining moment in Los Angeles history and helped cement Johnson’s legacy as a true L.A. hero. The Coliseum torch was re-lit Wednesday in Johnson’s memory and will remain aflame until sundown. It will be lighted again sunup to sundown Thursday, according to county Supervisor Janice Hahn, who serves as president of the Coliseum Commission.