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Media Life: Brad Johnson is Auburn’s best-known actor you’ve never heard of

Johnson grew up in Auburn and is perhaps remembered most for major role in 1950s TV western “Annie Oakley”
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Auburn’s best-known actor is someone most people have never heard of. But they should. His name is Brad Johnson. He was raised in Auburn and went to Placer High School. But his time to shine was in the early days of the TV western back in the 1950s. And by the time the 1960s were in full swing he had moved on to a more lucrative career in Southern California real estate. Johnson died relatively young – at age 56 in 1981 – and his chief claim to fame was for a role in a western that was popular for its time but has faded into relative obscurity in the 21st century. Johnson, who was born in Yuba City and lived in Auburn until just before high school graduation, is remembered by classmate Keith Lukens as someone who even then had been bitten by the acting bug. In fact, he left Placer High before graduating his senior year to attend a Sacramento school that he felt had an acting instructor that could better help him get further ahead. World War II interrupted Johnson’s acting dreams but after graduating from university in Southern California and paying his dues in live theater, he began to find work in both movies and on the small screen. That’s him in 1951’s infamous “Bedtime for Bonzo,” with Ronald Reagan, as an anonymous student. Johnson’s widow, Gadgit Bobo, recalled in a recent interview driving cross-country and motoring through a freak snowstorm in Florida for a potential part in Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Johnson snagged a small part, playing an uncredited role as a reporter. TV was moving into what many consider its Golden Age and Johnson’s rugged good looks were in demand. There were parts in “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” “Rescue 8,” “Circus Boy” and “The Cisco Kid.” “ANNIE OAKLEY” A HIGH POINT One of his biggest roles early on was playing pioneering Bill Tilghman in a 1952 episode of “Death Valley Days.” He’d go on to make five appearances on the long-running show by 1960. But Johnson’s star shone brightest when he was chosen as Deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig to Gail Davis’ Annie in “Annie Oakley.” The series would span 81 episodes over three seasons between 1954 and 1957. “Annie Oakley” was even nominated for an Emmy in 1955 as Best Western or Adventure Series. The show provided a fictitious life of Oakley in the fictional town of Diablo, Ariz., with plenty of trick-shooting and fancy riding. Bobo, who remarried after Johnson’s death and now lives in Chatsworth, said Johnson developed a fast-gun act that he would perform at rodeos and other locations. One of those stops was a return to Auburn for a Gold Rush commemoration in the 1950s, she recalled. Lukens remembered his old friend coming back to Auburn for the event and rehearsing while standing on a mattress to cushion the shock if a gun dropped. When “Annie Oakley” ended its run, it continued in syndication well into the 1960s. Johnson found steady work guesting on other shows, mostly westerns. Some of the more notable programs he appeared on included “77 Sunset Strip,” “Wagon Train,” “Maverick,” “Cheyenne,” and “Dennis the Menace.” Described by Bobo as a natural salesman, Johnson would increasingly feel the pull of real estate. When he was given a choice between getting involved in the burgeoning “spaghetti western” industry in Spain during the 1960s, Johnson chose to stay in Southern California, Bobo said. Johnson’s last role would be in 1967 as Laskin on a “Gunsmoke” episode. He would die in 1981 in Burbank. Bobo said he had just completed developing a shopping center when he learned he had cancer. Little-remembered in Auburn today, Johnson’s acting legacy is being carried on by a granddaughter. Azura Skye was born just months after her grandfather’s death and has carved out her own career – first starring on the late-1990s WB Network teen sitcom “Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane.” She’s gone on to act alongside Sandra Bullock in “28 Days” and play some memorable one-shot roles on progams such as “The Mentalist,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Ghost Whisperer,” and “Bones.” Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at (530) 852-0232 or gust@goldcountrymedia.com.