Although he played his share of officials and bureaucrats over the years, it is as a terrifying alien that Bill Johnson made his biggest mark on screen. Playing lead villian Mr Wilberforce on Under The Mountain, he struck fear into the hearts of Kiwi children across the country.
The beginnings of William Johnson's screen career were far more down to earth. In 1969 he appeared in The Alpha Plan, New Zealand’s first TV drama series, before co-starring as the voice of conformity in early Ian Cross teleplay The City of No. Johnson's enigmatic character tries to convince a man undergoing a mid-life crisis that he should return to his wife. The cast included a young Sam Neill, who Johnson would act alongside in Sleeping Dogs.
When local screen drama began gathering steam in the mid 70s, so did Johnson's CV. State television had begun successfully exporting a run of children's shows. Johnson was called on to act in many of them: from Gather Your Dreams (as a smalltown mayor) to Children of Fire Mountain (as a school master) and then in 1981, Under the Mountain.
Maurice Gee's original Under the Mountain novel has been in print for decades. The television adaptation also won its fair share of fans. Johnson played the hearse-driving Mr Wilberforce, one of a group of shapeshifting aliens who have made a home beneath Auckland's volcanoes (the character appears in some scenes of this episode). "As the waxen-faced leader of the Wilberforces," Trevor Agnew wrote in 2009, "he struck terror into New Zealanders of all ages".
His other television roles included kidult series Terry and the Gunrunners, 1990's The New Adventures of Black Beauty, an ongoing part on hit series Mercy Peak, and as one of a trio of oddball farmers encountered by the heroine in mini-series Heart of the High Country. In 1988 he had a small but memorable role as an obstructive diplomat, in telefeature The Grasscutter (he faces off against Marshall Napier's detective, six minutes into this excerpt). Sometimes he had an American accent: including mini-series The Tommyknockers, another tale of mysterious aliens, and the 'Great Wide World Over There' episode of Ray Bradbury Theatre, where he was husband to a woman trying to one-up her neighbour.
The Auckland actor also appeared sporadically on the big screen, from 1977 classic Sleeping Dogs, (he appears in the wharf scene, early in this excerpt), to Geoff Steven drama Skin Deep (as one of the local townspeople), and swashbuckling adventure Savage Islands (as Reverend Williamson).
In 2009 he cameoed in the big screen remake of Under The Mountain, as an anonymous gardener who mutters “bloody foreigners” when the Wilberforces greet him. Oliver Driver, who played Mr Wilberforce this time around, described watching the original TV series as a child and thinking that the character "was the nastiest, evilest guy that New Zealand has ever had".
In 2014 Johnson starred in the short film Forget Me Not, as a man suffering from memory loss.
Bill Johnson passed away on the 23 September 2016. He was 92.
Trevor Agnew, 'Awakening the Wilberforces' - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout) - 8 December 2009
Scott Kara, 'Under the Mountain's evil revival' - The NZ Herald, 29 October 2009
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)