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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 08/13/2010

TRIBUTE: Remembering 'FUTURAMA' producer Alex Johns, 43

By Michael Cavna

alexjohns.JPG ALEX JOHNS with his dog, Rio. (Courtesy of the Johns family.)

Washington Post staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia knew accomplished animation producer ALEX JOHNS, who was especially noted for his work on "The Ant Bully" and "Futurama." Johns died last weekend at age 43. For Comic Riffs, Roig-Franzia remembers his friend:

Alex Johns, a distinguished producer of animated entertainment for television and films, died Saturday, Aug. 7, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles after a long illness.

Alex, 43, served as co-executive producer of the hit film "The Ant Bully" and co-produced more than 70 episodes of Comedy Central's popular "Futurama, working closely with the show's creator, Matt Groening.


"It's one thing for a producer to slog through the late hours of TV production, but Alex did it all with a smile -- a world-class, radiant smile at that," Groening [pictured right] says. "No matter how difficult the work was, you could count on Alex to not only get the job done, but to do it quickly and cheerfully. I'm so shocked and sorry to hear the sad news."

The entertainment business was in Alex's DNA. He was the grandson of the actor,
Steve Cochran -- who starred in many films, includng the 1949 gangster classic, "White Heat," Johns inherited his grandfather's square-jawed good looks and adventurous nature. And like his grandfather, who was 48 at the time of his death, Alex died too young.

Johns was born Aug. 23, 1966, in Roseville, Calif. After attending San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego, Alex inevitably gravitated toward the movies. He got his start in the late 1980s colorizing classic films. As he rose in the ranks, demonstrating an unerring mastery of the process, few knew his secret: he was colorblind.

In the 1990s, Alex worked in production for "The Ren and Stimpy Show," then moved over to "Futurama." Groening also tapped Alex for a key role in producing "Olive, the Other Reindeer," a 45-minute Christmas television special. It was a role that showcased Alex's diplomatic skills. DNA Productions, a firm headed by John A. Davis, now a successful writer and director, was doing the animation. Davis was also directing the special, but Groening eventually decided that the final product would be better if the director was not also handling production, Davis recalled.

"Alex was in the uncomfortable position of telling me I was being replaced," Davis said. "But to hear his spin, it sounded like I was getting a promotion! He was awesome."

Davis remembered that tactful dismissal a few years later, when he was assembling the production team for "The Ant Bully." As director of the film, one of his first calls was to Alex. "He did such a great job firing me, I had to hire him!" Davis says.

Alex traveled with Davis throughout the United States, recording celebrity voices for the film, including those of Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, Paul Giamatti, Lily Tomlin and Julia Roberts.

"It was a very difficult production, but Alex never faltered," Davis said. "Many days I would turn to Alex and ask, 'Just tell me we're gonna make it and it's gonna be OK.' He would just look at me, smile, and say: 'It'll be fine, everything's fine,' in that super-comforting-'no problem' way he had of speaking. I sincerely believe we would not have delivered on time if not for Alex."

"The Ant Bully" grossed more than $28 million, according to Stephen Hunter, then the The Post's Pulitzer-winning film critic, called the film "superb, both as technical exercise and moral treatise. It boasts shrewd psychology into the nature of anger and violence. It makes the point that those who feel oppressed and unloved are far more likely to pass the upshot of oppression and lovelessness (i.e., violence) to those below in the pyramid of power."

"A lot of people in Hollywood think [that] the bigger jerk you are, the better you'll do," said Lee Supercinski, whom Johns recruited for the "Futurama" and "Ant Bully" production teams, and who now serves as producer for the Comedy Central show. "Alex taught me that if you treat people kindly and with respect, you'll get the same results. He was my mentor.

"He didn't really mean to have this big of an influence on my life, but he did."

By Michael Cavna  | August 13, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  General, The Animation  | Tags:  Alex Johns, Ant Bully, Futurama, John A. Davis, Lee Supercinski, Matt Groening  
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