ST. PETERSBURG — To say Joseph Alan Johnson has been waiting awhile for his big break is an understatement.
"When I was 12, I wanted an agent!" says the 54-year-old local theater star. "As a kid, I would tell my mom, 'I'm much better than the actor who plays Ernie on My Three Sons. I want to go to L.A. now!' "
That L.A. adventure would come; the fame he craved is another story. It wasn't until 10 years ago, when Johnson moved here to be closer to his parents, that his talents for acting, writing and directing merged into a full-tilt-boogie creative assault.
Now things are getting good.
As well as acting in 30 productions in the past decade, Johnson has written and directed a handful as well, including last year's Cellmate Confessions, which satirizes the popular "mugshot" online sites and scandal sheets littering convenience store counters. It started at [email protected] but ended up at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa — a highlight in a career chock-full of almost-famous moments.
His new genre-tweaking production, Green Card Wedding Bridesmaid, which he wrote and directs, is a quick-lipped rom-com in which boys kiss boys, boys kiss girls and girls kiss girls, all on a saucy carousel of a marrying-for-moolah plot with twists and gender flips. "It's sexy from every angle," he says. "I'm telling you, people won't even make it to their cars after seeing this one!"
In his day job waiting tables at Cassis, the French restaurant on Beach Drive, Johnson came up with the basic idea for Green Card. In tribute, the play includes waiter jokes ("You may be a Harvard MBA, but you still need someone to serve you a BLT") and a winking Cassis shout-out that brought a howl from an opening-night crowd that included a few co-workers.
With a small, pretty cast and plenty of zingers, Green Card is ideally sized for its intimate setting in the L Train theater — although Johnson worried if the play also would be ideal for his mom, too.
"Oh yes, he warned me about it, and it is sexy and racy," laughs 84-year-old Charlotte Johnson, who saw the final dress rehearsal. "But that's Joe. He's always ahead of everyone else; he was the first of my children to play with kids out of the neighborhood."
Born in Charleston, W.Va., a teenage Johnson went to acting school in New York ("We went to parties at Calvin Klein's") and then tried movies out in Hollywood ("I played teenagers until I was 28"). He appeared in B-movie guilty pleasures such as The Slumber Party Massacre and Hollywood Hot Tubs. He tried out for Fast Times at Ridgemont High; he lost out for the lead role in Mask to Eric Stoltz.
He was frustrated with his career; he was also frustrated with having to live a double personal life. "Back then it was taboo to be gay," he says. "I was blackballed by an agency because I knew one of the agents was gay."
So he moved to Rome, working with the masters of Italian horror: Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava. When he got tired of that, he moved back to L.A. And so on and on. Fame and fortune proved elusive. He had yet to take a crack at writing plays, but under the Florida sun, that proved to be his strength.
"Success is very elusive," Johnson says. "A showbiz career is no certain bet."
And yet, he persists.
He's trying to get Cellmate Confessions published and performed by a major theater group, although getting widespread exposure can be tough. Still, he has high hopes for the future of Green Card, too.
No matter the setbacks, no matter the showbiz cliches, finally having creative success makes all the struggles worthwhile. "There is nothing else! There is no other life!" Johnson laughs. "You marry the acting life like a nun marries Jesus!"
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] and (727) 893-8467. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.