This tall, dark and handsome stage actor became the film industry's first matinee idol, as well as working as a director and screenwriter. Johnson ran away from military school to join the theatrical profession in 1894, and spent the next 14 years as a supporting player and leading man with various companies. Out of work, he was hired by The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1908 to act in films, the first of which was "The Adventures of Dollie", D W Griffith's directing debut.
Johnson stayed with Biograph for three years, co-starring in scores of one-reelers with Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett, Henry B. Walthall and other company stock players. He had ambitions to write and direct, though, and because that did not sit well with Griffith, Johnson decamped in 1911 for Philadelphia's Lubin company, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
Lubin allowed Johnson to write and direct, as long as he agreed to act as well, usually opposite Lottie Briscoe or fellow Biograph refugee Florence Lawrence. In 1911 and 1912 alone, Johnson and Lawrence made 48 films together. By 1915, the hard-working jack-of-all-trades was in poor health (due to over-work, alcoholism, or tuberculosis, depending on the source) and had to take frequent leaves of absence from the studio. "I have been working very hard for the past few years and have needed a vacation," he said in 1915. "The doctors told me this some time ago, but it's hard for me to keep away from the studio." Johnson was only 39 when he died in 1916.