Robert Johnson has more than one side to him. By day, he’s the police chief of Corsicana. By night or any time he's free, he’s a movie actor and producer.
One Tuesday afternoon, he sits in his office at the Corsicana Police Department. He's wearing his full uniform, but his white smile looks more like it belongs on film. He scrolls through his Facebook photos and tells a story about each of the people he's worked with. "Guillermo Diaz — he's one of the nicest human beings you'll ever meet in your life," he says.
Johnson wasn’t always interested in starring in and producing movies. He grew up in Fairfield, about 30 miles from Corsicana, and worked at a service station. One day while traveling to see his girlfriend, he was pulled over for speeding. Inspired by the police officer who pulled him over, he decided to become an officer.
He worked in College Station and then as an undercover officer in Corsicana before getting the position of police chief.
But it was one day at an Oak Cliff diner that changed his career. "My friend and I would eat there every single Thursday, and for 20 years Larry would try to get me to do acting,” Johnson says. “He’d say, ‘You'd be perfect for this. I mean, really.’ I said ‘Man, you know …' I had this thought that you had to be trained, you gotta be living in Hollywood. You know, what you think it is?”
But one Thursday in 2010, Johnson gave in to Larry's persistence and sent a selfie to a casting director for a TV show — mainly to shut his friend up. On Saturday, a casting director called him to audition for a role. Completely out of place and uncertain what to do, Johnson went to the audition. And while he received a callback, he ultimately didn’t get the role. But a few weeks later, the casting director called and asked him to be an extra in the TV show Lone Star.
After working as an extra for 12 hours on an outdoor set for a wedding scene, Johnson was tired and frustrated. As he headed to his car, he says, he didn't want to do anything like it again. Then the director of the TV show tapped him on the shoulder.
“You would make a great cop,” he told Johnson.
“I thought, ‘Well, duh,’” Johnson says.
Johnson was cast as a police officer for a few episodes of Lone Star. “I fell in love with [acting] at that point,” he says. “I said, ‘If I can do this, I just gotta be willing to make a fool out of myself.’”
So he began rehearsing a monologue. He signed to a talent agency and within a few weeks got an audition for the reboot of Dallas, landing the role as a sheriff in its pilot episode.
“The realization hits me,” he says. “I went, ‘Shit, I just faked my way into something. I'm no damn actor. What the hell am I doing?’ Then it just goes to, ‘Shit, I knew these lines, now I can't even think of the first sentence.’ You know? The fear hits.”
Then Patrick Duffy walked into his trailer. "Patrick was just a total gentleman that could see the fear in my eyes when I got to set for my first time on Dallas," Johnson says. "He was so kind, talking to me about my police career, where I lived and my family."
After Dallas, one role led to another, and about five years in, Johnson says, he had done about 70 projects.
While on the set of Trafficked, which was shooting in Bakersfield, California, Johnson noticed the similarities between that city and Corsicana.
“I'm sitting there in Bakersfield, looking at it, going, ‘Bakersfield is kind of a big Corsicana. I could do this.’ Then all of a sudden, it hit me: ‘We're doing it.’”
He went back to Corsicana and met with the city manager, the mayor, business people and people in the arts communities, asking what they thought about bringing movies to Corsicana. With a promise to help Corsicana’s economy, city officials agreed.
From there, Johnson flew directors Dustin Fairbanks and Will Wallace to Corsicana to show them what they could do there with movies like Warning Shot. “We made the deal to shoot the movie with a handshake,” Johnson says. "Right on Beaton Street."
Wallace has brought two movies in Corsicana: Warning Shot with David Spade and FAZ, a zombie comedy. Johnson is an associate or co-producer on each. Johnson says he lines up places to shoot, gets approval and ensures the cast and crew have everything they need.
Wallace says Corsicana was instrumental in FAZ’s production value because Corsicana residents played extras in the movie. “We needed the town to rally behind becoming zombies and the apocalyptic scene at the end, and they brought out cars and turned them upside down,” he says. “Really gave us this apocalyptic look that would have been impossible without the town behind it.”
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Johnson says the Corsicana residents are typically happy about the town occasionally turning into a movie set. He says he can only count three oral complaints — all from the same person.
“Everybody else, no complaints,” he says. “They look at it, ‘Oh, hey, this kind of stuff is neat.’ Just like when we put the call out for zombie extras — that builds relationships. That opens the door.”
Despite his growing IMDB page, Johnson is still a police chief. He says his structured personality helps him manage all his roles.
“I have like three different sides to me," he says. "I have the police side, which is extremely rigid, militaristic — of course that's what gravitates to the job. I've always had this creative side of me, and the goofball side, that's where that part comes in. It's less structured, it's more taking chances, but when you combine the two and you use them to your advantage, like I said, I use this world to open doors in this world with people.”