‘Hit Man’ True Story, Explained: How Much Of The Story Is Real In Netflix Film?


The glitz and charm of Richard Linklater’s Hit Man might distract you from something about Gary Johnson, Glen Powell’s character with a chameleon-like repertoire of personalities. There’s an odd darkness to this fascinating guy. And that might be the only attribute of the man we get to know in Hit Man that is not quite true of the real Gary Johnson. That’s right. Powell’s character in the film he co-wrote with Linklater is created in the mold of a very real professor-turned-hitman, Gary Johnson. The Gary in Hit Man shuffles personalities like a deck of cards and always knows which one to pick for the client he’s about to trick into conviction. It all works out fine between his life as a professor and an undercover mole for law enforcement until Gary falls in love with one of his clients. In case you want to know more about the chaos that ensues, pop over to our explainer of the film for a thorough look into Gary as a whole. If I had to pick one thing about Powell’s Gary that intrigued me the most, it would have to be the fact that he is, in fact, pretty true to life. I guess we have Powell to thank for being taken by a longform story he read on Texas Monthly and bringing it to Linklater. Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who chronicled the life of Houston’s most sought-after “hitman” in his 2001 article, was the co-writer on Linklater’s Bernie. But how much of Powell’s Gary is actually based on the real guy?

Spoiler Alert

Who is Gary Johnson?

The real Gary Johnson might’ve made it big as a fake hitman in Houston, but he was originally from Louisiana. Born in 1947, he had what you’d call a pretty regular childhood. His dad was a carpenter, while his mom managed the house. You could say that Gary’s time in Vietnam as a military policeman had something to do with his growing interest in the field of law enforcement. But being a fake hitman wasn’t something Gary initially thought he’d pursue. He did work as a mole in the drug game for a while. And as you’d expect, his enigmatic personality was enough for him to never invite suspicion from the drug dealers. In the 1970s, Gary even served as a sheriff’s deputy. Sometimes later, he also got involved in some undercover work for the Port Arthur PD. But Gary’s fascination lay somewhere else. Just like his fictional counterpart, Gary was increasingly intrigued by the workings of the human mind. Psychology was his field of passion. And he even had a master’s degree in psychology.

In Hit Man, Gary’s profession in academia was tweaked just a little bit. While the real Gary did teach psychology at a local community college when he moved to Houston, the other subject he taught was human sexuality, not philosophy. At the end of the movie, Gary seemed to be a full-time professor at a college. But that wasn’t a dream that came true for the real Gary Johnson. He did want to enroll in the University of Houston’s doctoral program in 1981. But his application was rejected, effectively changing the course of his life from the one he had in mind. But even though he didn’t teach philosophy like Powell’s character, Gary was rather taken by Carl Jung’s and Gandhi’s wisdom on the existential questions of life. Like Powell’s Gary, he was a pretty chill guy who kept to himself and spent time with his cats, who were actually named Id and Ego. If you take his students’ and neighbors’ remarks into account, Gary comes off as someone who didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. To most people, he was the quiet guy who worked in human resources and took care of his garden and cats. And I guess that’s part of the whole peculiar process that he followed when he worked for the Harris County district attorney’s office as a tremendously convincing mole posing as a hitman to incarcerate people with murder on their minds. Gary Johnson died back in 2022, just before the production on Hit Man started. And I think he would’ve really loved what Richard Linklater and Glen Powell have made out of an interview he gave back in 2001. 

Gary’s life as a fake hitman

Similar to his fictional counterpart, the real Gary Johnson could tailor his personality around the specifications that would suit his clients—not to actually work as their hired gun but so that they’d believe that he’s someone they can trust with such a job. He was sleek for the rich and an ordinary Joe for the working class. And he could conjure up just the right body language and words to get the goriest truths out of the people who needed someone eliminated from their lives. Close to what we see in Hit Man, there were informants who’d get in touch with the cops so that the person looking for a murder-for-hire killer got Gary’s number to call. And he’d show up as various characters.

Mike Caine and Chris Buck were just two of the numerous aliases he embodied to convince people that he was a professional killer willing to get his hands dirty for the right price. Some of the sting operations that we’ve seen in Hit Man actually pick up bits and pieces of the very real cases of people calling Gary to kill someone who’d become a nuisance. For instance, in Hit Man, there was this man who got Gary’s number from an exotic dancer and ordered a hit. There was also this woman who had mapped out a pretty tight plan to make her husband’s murder look like suicide. Both of these operations are pretty close to what happened when the real Gary Johnson was hired by Robert Holliday. Holliday opened up to a former exotic dancer about his plan to have his wife killed, and she then contacted the authorities, who then got in touch with Gary. Just like the woman in Hit Man who wanted her husband dead, Holliday wanted Gary to slit his wife’s wrists so she’d bleed to death while he was at the oil rig he worked at, solidifying his alibi. Similarly to the case in Hit Man, Holliday had it all worked out by reporting that his wife was suicidal so that he could sue her doctors after her death. And much like that rich woman who came on to Powell’s Gary while detailing why she wants her ex-husband killed, the real Gary Johnson was often pursued by the women he met on the job, although he always kept things strictly professional. 

Was there an actual Madison Masters?

Like I said before, Hit Man picks up anecdotes from Gary Johnson’s decades-long career as a faux hitman for the DA’s office and several police departments to concoct the troubles Gary tackles in the film. But before we get into it, let me put one question to rest. Madison Masters is an entirely fictional love interest. The real Gary was actually on pretty good terms with his ex-wife, just like we’ve seen in the movie, and she described him as pretty much a loner. Gary was married 3 times and unfortunately none of his marriage make it through. Gary had been a loner throughout his life. And unlike what we see in the film, he never actually got romantically involved with any of his clients or murdered anyone in cold blood.

From what I’ve read about his sting operations, the whole ordeal involving Madison seems to be a blend of multiple cases Gary worked in. For starters, there was Kathy Scott, a woman who told her former high school friend that she wanted to have her husband murdered because he was getting too stingy with his money. Just like Madison was suspected of having killed her husband for the insurance money, Kathy Scott was likely looking forward to a life of luxury by taking a hit out on her husband and collecting the insurance money, retirement benefits, and two houses that belonged to him. Although not exactly like Ron, the alias Hit Man‘s Gary created specifically for Madison, the real Gary Johnson did go pretty suave with the guy he made up to fool Kathy. He went into the meeting as Mike Caine, a biker with a taste in jewelry. When the fictional Gary was looking up Madison, he found out that her husband, Ray, was the heir to his family’s oil and gas business. The real Gary Johnson was actually approached by a socialite, Lynn Kilroy, who wanted to obtain his services to have her husband killed. Lynn’s husband was also the heir to an oil tycoon.

Unlike Madison, who ended up falling for the fake hitman, Lynn actually had an affair with a guy before the cops got a whiff of her plan and sent Gary in. But the real-life case that I believe most closely resembles the one with Madison is the one where Gary helped out a woman who wanted to have her abusive boyfriend killed. As Gary’s research unearthed, this woman found herself at her wit’s end with her boyfriend, who repeatedly abused her and kept her under his thumb. She was terrified of what he might do if she opted for a break-up. That was the first time Gary broke the rules of his job. He acknowledged her desperation. So instead of doing what he was supposed to and having her arrested, Gary helped her reach the safety of a women’s shelter by getting her to seek assistance from social services and a therapist. So Hit Man is spot on about one thing when it comes to Gary Johnson, the raddest fake hitman in Houston who took the world of undercover work by storm. He was the chillest, most inexplicably deep guy alive. 

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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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