Voice of Hollywood: E.T.’s voice-over king, Ben Patrick Johnson, says being gay got him sidelined at Extraa story he has now turned into a juicy new Hollywood novel – television
In 1994 Ben Patrick Johnson–boasting solid professional experience and heart-fluttering good looks–was set to start a coveted gig as cohost of Extra, the then-impending, now-thriving entertainment newsmagazine show that lives and hyperventilates to scoop Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. But he never made it to that cushy anchor chair. Johnson was demoted to on-air correspondent because, he is just now claiming publicly, Extra’s producers discovered that he was gay.
“They assured me that my `lifestyle choice’ had nothing to do with it. I wanted to believe them, but people close to the show later told me otherwise,” says Johnson, 33, who today finds solace in being one of Hollywood’s leading voice-over artists, He can be heard in ads for movies like Spider-Man and Signs and, with fitting irony, as the gung ho announcer on Entertainment Tonight.
Warner Bros. Television, which produces Extra, is steadfastly unenlightening in its response to Johnson’s assertion. (“We don’t comment on personnel matters,” says a spokesperson.) But the sincere, affable–and opinionated–Johnson is anything but tight-lipped. He cayenne-peppers conversation with opinions, and on his Web site he even offers reading recommendations–Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, anyone? Now the ambitious Johnson wants to garner some good opinions of his own writing with his new novel In and Out in Hollywood (Palari Publishing), a roman a clef in which a somewhat self-destructive up-start is hired to anchor a celeb-hounding show but is sidelined after he comes out at the company picnic.
In real life Johnson didn’t divulge his sexual orientation at a company barbecue, but he admits the satirical, biz-savvy book, while not a memoir of his Extra bad experience, “is very much drawn on my own history. It’s about a guy trying to hang on to his dignity.”
His righteousness may be genetic. Growing up the youngest of six children in St. Patti, Minn., Johnson watched Ids parents devote their lives to teaching and even spending time in Zaire as educational missionaries. While his early teen years at school were “not very happy”–mainly because he was overweight–he was comfortable enough to come out to his friends and family while at St. Paul’s Highland Park Senior High. “I was distraught over the breakup with my first boyfriend, and I had to tell someone,” he says. “Most everyone was pretty accepting.”
Buoyed, at 15 he aced a graduation equivalency test and headed to the University of Minnesota, where he juggled studies with DJ and interview duties for a nationally syndicated radio show. By 22 he was in Los Angeles and working as creative director at ABC’s local talk radio affiliate.
Then in 1994 he made it to Extra, where he says he first experienced “the chill” of homophobia. Despite his demotion he spent a year with the series, partying along the way with Charlie Sheen and occasionally coming across the definitely or suspected closeted star. “But I also spent, a lot of time sitting at my desk,” he says. After leaving, he did some reporting for ABC Radio and Reuters, and in 1998 he became E.T.’s golden voice.
Despite his busy voice-over schedule–he also narrates Fox Sports’s You Gotta See This–Johnson says he needed rite catharsis of writing In and Out. After his Extra anchor duties were withdrawn, he says, “I felt ashamed, that I was untalented.” Still, he decided against suing: “What, and get a small settlement and a terrible job?” With his book, however, Johnson has found his way to fight back and “pay honors” to groundbreaking TV journalists like Steve Kmetko. “By telling my story,” he says, “I can show gay people they weren’t–and aren’t–alone.”
He doesn’t stop relating there. In and Out’s protagonist has a compulsive nature, as does Johnson: “I struggle with my own addictions–food, sex, spending money.” The self-proclaimed nonconformist healed some wounds when he posed topless for the cover of photographer Jeff Palmer’s 2002 hunks calendar. “I can still feel like the kid who was the butt of jokes, so that was hyper-compensation,” says Johnson. His diligently worked-out physique has also caught the eye of Julia Roberts, who a year ago gushed over his voice and looks while taping an E.T. interview. Another gawker: the “Broadway star” whom Johnson says he has been dating for a few months and whom he declines to name–for a reason that would make his parents, if not the Extra gang, proud. “He’s not in the closet,” says Johnson. “We just haven’t been dating long enough to make it official.”
Griffiths writes for Premiere and InStyle magazines.
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