Ray Johnson, actor, poet, Hilo icon, dies at 90

  • Whether performing or merely walking downtown to chat amiably, Raymond Johnson left his imprint on Hilo through the years. “I always felt he was mystical and magical and humble all at the same time,” Haki Peace Montano posted on Facebook. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/For the Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Raymond Johnson, an actor, poet and one of downtown Hilo’s most iconic individuals, died Monday. He was 90.

A fixture at local stage plays, concerts and art show openings, Johnson was a tall, bearded, striking man whose manner of dress included bright colors, beads, bangles and jaunty headwear — and in later years, a walking stick. He walked downtown almost daily, chatting amiably with everyone.


“I usually saw him on his walk by the Hilo Post Office on a Friday afternoon during our weekly peace vigil,” said activist Jim Albertini on Facebook. “We would always share aloha and usually Ray would pass on some social insight for justice, peace and the Earth.”

Born in New York City in 1931, Johnson partook of the vibrant arts and jazz scene in Harlem before a hitch in the military in the 1950s, according to his friend, Ken Charon, an artist who drew Johnson in pencil and graphite.

His poem, “Walking East on 125th Street,” was included in the 1968 book “Black Fire: an Anthology of Afro-American Writing,” a seminal work in the Black Arts Movement.

After moving to San Francisco just in time for the Summer of Love and later to an Oregon commune, Johnson came to Hilo in the late 1980s.

Johnson logged more than a dozen movie and TV credits before moving to Hilo, including a memorable turn as a bad guy in a bright purple shirt who had just committed a robbery in “Dirty Harry.”

In an iconic scene, Johnson’s wounded character lay bleeding on a San Francisco sidewalk, contemplating reaching for a shotgun at arm’s length and staring into the barrel of Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum as the movie legend said he’d forgotten whether he’d fired five or six shots.

After Dirty Harry scooped up the shotgun and turned to walk away, Johnson stopped him with, “Hey, I gots to know.” Eastwood pointed the revolver at Johnson, whose eyes widened and mouth went agape as the trigger pull produced the click of an empty cylinder.

“Son of a bitch,” Johnson muttered as Eastwood walked off.

Locally, he played Bynum Walker, a “conjure man,” in the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center’s 2012 production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

The role of a juju healer fit Johnson to a tee.

“I always felt he was mystical and magical and humble all at the same time,” Haki Peace Montano posted on Facebook.


Services are pending.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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