Bluford Johnson (1934-2011)

by Shawna Lewis

04/14/2012

Rachel Robinson remembers a lot of her father’s quirks—the way he’d shout “Judas Priest” when something upset him, the way he remembered the birthday and anniversary of everyone he knew, and the way he didn’t care for his own first name. Mostly, though, she remembers the movies.

Bluford Johnson was head over heels for the special effects and witty cracks of Hollywood motion pictures. His over-2,000-piece collection ranged from black and white to animated Technicolor, from Wolfman to The Little Rascals.

“In his little apartment, he had boxes crammed full of VHS tapes that were stacked high,” Robinson said, “and those plastic storage drawers full of them, too. Then there was a hutch, a DVD tower, and bookcases, for the DVDs. And then there were many that were lent out to friends. He was always so generous with everything he had to give—which wasn’t always much.”

Johnson was physically disabled for most of his life, after a work-related accident in July 1962.

“Dad was 28 years old and had a railroad job,” Robinson said. “He was shutting a railcar, and the door came off its tracks. It fell on him. When they finally got it off of him, his head was laying on his right ankle. It just bent him in two. It shattered his right hip, they had to put in a steel ball and a rod going down his femur. His shin was shattered, too. The doctors had to puzzle piece it together.

“It took him a long time to recover—and I don’t know that he ever really recovered from it fully. He was in a wheelchair for a long time, but my dad was determined to get out of it. He was not going to stay in that chair. Eventually he managed to walk with a cane or crutches. He was fiercely independent.”

Robinson says her father was covered by some insurance, but needed the help of a lawyer to obtain the full compensation he needed for medical expenses. “He was working with this great lawyer who was very old and actually died in the middle of the process. The next lawyer he got didn’t seem to have as much enthusiasm, and dad only ended up with a $10,000 settlement, even though he suffered from that injury for the rest of his life.”

Being forced to sit still and recover only heightened Johnson’s mammoth movie obsession. Having served eight years in the Naval Reserves and being a self-taught student of military history, he delighted in documentaries about the Second World War.

“My son also likes history, so that’s something they got to enjoy together. They would watch the movies together and my dad would comment with stories about his own experiences, or detailed trivia about other battles. It would mesmerize my son. My dad was always really proud of him. He said having a grandson would make him immortal.”

When Robinson’s kids signed up for karate lessons, Johnson dug out the VHS tapes of the original Kung Fu classics starring David Carradine. “He loved watching movies with his grandkids, and telling them everything about each one. We would be watching something together, and he would say, ‘This is the longest flight scene ever recorded.’ He would make notes on Ebert and Roeper’s reviews and be sure to watch the ones they said were best.”

Keeping up with the newest releases even into his last days, Robinson says his last movie was probably The Fighter. “Someone had given it to him as a gift, and he was so excited. When they handed it to him, he immediately rattled off the actors’ names, the praise it received, and all the trivia.”

“Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, and the old Tarzan,” she said, listing them from memory. “Those were probably his favorites, the good clean movies. He loved the classics. I can’t tell you how many VCRs he’d worn out.”