Triumphing Over Impediments, Johnston Returns to the Stage

Ross HawkinsA&E

John Dennis Johnston has returned to the stage in the demanding role of “Papa” in Bruce Gooch's gritty drama “Dirt,” playing in midtown Los Angeles.


Johnston plays an old farmer slowly descending into dementia, and he is cared for by his son Zac, played by real life nephew Ryan Johnston.

Both father and son blame each other for the death of Papa's wife and Zac’s mother.

Johnston has been a working actor since 1971, and far more amazingly, he has been legally blind since 1995.

A rare form of glaucoma leaves him with no depth perception. Only in blurred vision is he able to see objects.

For 30 years he has been married to Karla Pitti Johnston. She is the daughter of the late cowboy-singer-actor Carl Pitti.

The Pitti family has been in show business the length and breadth of a century, dating back to Ben Pitti and his wife Ethel performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Together, in 1981, John Johnston and Karla bought the Pitti family residence, 4191Lincoln Ave., Culver City from Carl and Mickey. The house has belonged to the family since 1921 when Ben, Ethel and son Carl moved there. They were working for actress Pauline Fredrick,and their second son Paul was born there.

John met playwright Bruce Gooch play rite Bruce at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego 17 years ago when they worked together developing an earlier version of “Dirt.”

In that version, James Whitmore played Papa, and John played Zac. Gooch is an actor, director, writer, producer who has just completed two screenplays for Albert Ruddy/Clearview Productions. He did various voices for Walt Disney's “Aladdin” and played in Shakespeare's “The Taming of The Shrew.”

Gooch owns an 800-acre farm in eastern Oregon. The landscape seen on the playbill was photographed at his farm.

John Dennis Johnston resurrected Dirt because his nephew Ryan wanted to produce a play here in Los Angeles.

“I didn't know at the time that he wanted to act in it,” Johnston said.

The play is being co-produced by the Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., two blocks west of La Brea.

The Rogue Machine Theatre specializes in presenting plays new to Los Angeles. Currently they are offering in their theatre next door, the award-winning “Sunset Limited.” Reservations can be made by calling 323.930.0741.

The tagline for Dirt is “Come on, boy: let's put some blood in the dirt.

Johnston said he loves this show.

“It's about the love of the land, loss and redemption as both father and son come to terms with each other.”

Andrea Robinson rounds out the cast as a young woman who runs a local “meals on wheels” operation

Twice nominated for a Canadian Emmy for her role in the television series “Doc,” she has appeared on stage, screen and television.

Johnston has carried on the family tradition by appearing in several Westerns, including “Pale Rider” with Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill's “Wild Bill” and as Frank Stillwell in “Wyatt Earp.”

Johnston's favorite screen role was in the HBO production, “In Pursuit of Honor,” starring Don Johnson, about a group of cavalrymen who in 1936 refuse to slaughter their horses after being ordered to do so by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to make way for the mechanization of the Army.

Although he's appeared in scores of motion pictures and television shows, Johnston's first love is live theatre. Dirt is, in one sense, a family affair as son Kyle Johnston along with Mathew McGaughey produced sound and music for Dirt.

It plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2.