Fact vs fiction: Hit Man — who was the real Gary Johnson?

Glen Powell in Hit Man
Glen Powell in Hit Man (Image credit: Matt Lankes/Netflix)

After debuting on Netflix on June 7, Hit Man quickly rose to be the most popular movie on the streaming service. The movie that stars Glen Powell and is directed by Richard Linklater, with the two co-writing the script, sees Powell play the unassuming psychology/philosophy professor Gary Johnson, who gets the chance to do undercover work for the police posing as a hit man to incriminate those looking to hire a contract killer to murder someone. Things take a turn though when he falls in love with a woman who seeks his services as a hit man.

The crazy thing is that Hit Man is based on a true story. There was a real Gary Johnson who worked undercover with the police posing as a hit man. However, the movie lays it out pretty clearly in the beginning that it is "somewhat" based on Johnson's true story. So what is true and what is fake?

Let's dive into that right here.

What parts of Hit Man are not true?

Linklater and Powell's script for Hit Man took its inspiration from a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth that profiled Gary Johnson, also titled "Hit Man." Inspiration is the key word, as there are a number of key things that are changed about Johnson for the movie.

The first and simplest change is the location. The movie takes place in New Orleans, with Johnson working with the New Orleans Police Department. However, the real Johnson lived in Houston and worked with the Harris County district attorney's office.

While Harris County prosecutor Michael Hilton, who worked with Johnson, described him as "the perfect chameleon" and a great performer, one element that was exaggerated for the movie were the disguises that Johnson would wear during his meetings with those looking to hire a hit man. Speaking with the Netflix blog Tudum, Linklater said the real Johnson would employ more subtle disguises. The director credits Powell for emphasizing the different characters Johnson would adopt as a hit man, further emphasizing movie Gary's enjoyment of playing with his identity.

The big element of Hit Man that was a construct of the movie, however, is Gary's relationship with Madison (Adria Arjona). In the movie, Madison is looking to hire a hit man to kill her abusive husband, so naturally she finds her way to Gary, who adopts a character he calls Ron. Seeing that Madison is truly scared, Gary opts not to get her to fess to anything that would get her in trouble, instead encouraging her to leave and start her life over. Madison does this, but she also felt a connection with Ron and wants to spend more time with him. 

Gary quickly finds that not only does he truly like Madison, but he likes who he is when he is Ron. The two continue to see each other. Things get complicated however when they have run ins with both Madison's husband, Ray (Evan Holtzman), and a police officer Gary works with, Jasper (Austin Amelio). Turns out Ray wants to hire a hit man to kill Madison and her new boyfriend (Ron/Gary), leading to an awkward situation where Gary has to meet with Ray. Gary informs Madison of this, wanting to protect her. She takes things too far though, murdering Ray.

She quickly becomes the prime suspect, but Gary (who reveals himself to not be Ron and that he works with the police after Madison confesses she killed Ray) helps her cover it up. Not well enough though for Jasper, who correctly guesses that Gary and Madison are in cahoots. Hoping to blackmail them, Jasper's plan is foiled when Madison spikes his drink and knocks him out. Gary takes things a step further though and decides they should kill Jasper, make it look like a suicide and then they can live happily ever after. And they do just that.

Long story short, all of the Madison and Ron/Gary plot is a fabrication of the movie. It was that decision though that Linklater said allowed him and Powell to crack the code of the movie and tell a worthwhile and entertaining story. However, it doesn't mean that it isn't based in truth.

The real Gary Johnson

Glen Powell and Adria Arjona in Hit Man

Glen Powell and Adria Arjona in Hit Man (Image credit: Brian Roedel/Netflix)

In the Texas Monthly article, it's detailed that Johnson began working as an investigator for the Harris County district attorney as he was pursuing his doctorate in psychology. He did that job for several years before he was recruited to portray a faux contract killer in various sting operations. Johnson would get the suspect incriminating themselves on tape about wanting to hire a hit man to murder someone. A great detail the movie keeps is Johnson's code phrase for clients to use when meeting him was indeed "all pie is good pie." 

Hollandsworth described Johnson as "the Laurence Olivier" of murder-for-hire investigations, while the movie cites that he assisted in more than 70 arrests as an undercover hit man.

It's one arrest that he didn't make however that was key for the Hit Man creative team. At the end of the Texas Monthly article, an anecdote details how Johnson helped a woman (unnamed in the article) who wanted her abusive boyfriend to be killed. After doing some research on the woman and discovering she was "regularly battered by her boyfriend, too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her," Johnson got her in contact with social services and a therapist to help her safely leave the abusive relationship. By all indications that was the end of the encounter (the movie reaffirms that Johnson committed zero murders).

Johnson described his work as an undercover hit man as such in the Texas Monthly article: "What I'm really there to do is assist people in their communication skills. 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."

As for other facets of Johnson's real life, like in the movie he is a bit of a loner. He was married three times (we only know of one ex wife in the movie) and he also had two cats named Id and Ego. The movie also notes that Johnson was a Vietnam veteran and did work as a college teacher.

Gary Johnson passed away in 2022.

Hit Man is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.