As NBC’s The Player heads toward its explosive finale, we’re spotlighting the four characters – and actors – that make this show the unsung class of television. Today, the spotlight is on Mr. Johnson, the enigmatic “Pit Boss” who runs the North American House with his own strict code of business, as portrayed perfectly by Wesley Snipes.
Johnson – if that even is his real name – begins the series as the primary representative of The House and the primary antagonist for the viewers watching at home. Never less than sharply dressed and often unreadable behind his sunglasses, he’s the top of the food chain as far as we know, which makes him responsible for this morally questionable game in which the rich and powerful gamble on crime. With Alex Kane (Philip Winchester) immediately voicing his objection to the idea, and the end-of-pilot implication that Johnson had something to do with the death of Alex’s ex-wife Ginny (Daisy Betts), we’re supposed to hate this guy.
When you’re creating a character like that, you need someone like Wesley Snipes. It’s easy to see why The Player‘s creative team were thinking of someone like him as they wrote the role of Johnson. There are so many people who can play enigmatic, or at least try to, but it’s about a lot more than wearing shades and using short sentences. There’s trying to be cool and then there’s actually cool, and Snipes earned his coolness credentials a long time ago with feature film roles in the Blade movies, Passenger 57, and U.S. Marshals. He has the credibility to make someone like Johnson legitimately mysterious and intriguing.
But tossing out cryptic one-liners and making unexpected entrances only takes you so far, and The Player has never dealt in character stereotypes. From very early on, Mr. Johnson was not only meant to serve as a professional opposite to Alex Kane, but was also set on his own character journey, one in which his past was as important as his present. In several episodes, particularly “A House Is Not A Home,” we learn a lot about him. He came from a rough neighborhood in Chicago, spent a considerable amount of time in China, and was originally one of the game’s most popular “Players” before he murdered his own “Pit Boss” – the only known person to have done so – and gave himself a promotion.
Furthermore, we’ve met multiple characters from Johnson’s past, including Judge Samuel Letts (Richard Roundtree), a former Chicago mob boss (Eric Roberts), and an old friend from the Chinese Triad (Will Yun Lee). Two of those folks are now dead, which tells you a lot about the world that Mr. Johnson lives in. It doesn’t have a high life expectancy, and that’s something he’s become acutely aware of.
Since “House Rules,” Johnson has been aware that there’s an as yet undefined faction that’s coming for him and control of The House, and he knows that’s a possibility since he overthrew his own “Pit Boss” once upon a time. Audiences have seen a Johnson who is as vulnerable as he has been strong, who has had to reach out for help to both Cassandra (Charity Wakefield) and Alex even though he’s tried to play them for his own ends more than once. He might be at the top of the organizational chart, but that just means a longer fall.
Snipes has been wonderful in portraying that flawed side of Johnson just as much as the more polished one. The role of Mr. Johnson didn’t require a tough guy; it needed a true actor, and he brings that to the table along with his charisma and considerable martial arts expertise. Given how easy it is for him to beat people up, Snipes doesn’t get as much credit as he should for how good of a performer he is. In The Player, he’s dug into Johnson’s character, assumed a couple of different personas, and at times been terribly funny – most notably in the pilot as an over-the-top FBI agent who doesn’t actually exist. He’s truly gotten the most out of the role.
One can’t underestimate how crucial Mr. Johnson is to the story. Early on, he provides a target for the audience, someone for us to root against and try to figure out as we orient outselves in this new universe. But in short order, he becomes this mirror with which we can look at Alex’s journey through The Player‘s minefield. Johnson, after all, has been where Alex is – and while they are worlds apart in their morality, they share much more common ground than either one of them would like. What began as a fairly simple battle of good versus evil then evolves into this constantly shifting relationship where they’re sometimes on the same side, sometimes on a different one, but still never comfortable with one another.
He’s also our best source of information as to how The House works and how it responds to Alex. Johnson is, as far as Alex and the audience know, the voice of The House. He also has access to rules and contacts and pieces that no one else in the main cast does. It’s through Johnson’s story that we learn about “the council” and the upper echelon of people that keep the game running, that we meet some of the gamblers who put their money into play, and that we’re educated on a number of rules – from the concept of a “double or nothing” bet to the fact that a gambler is not allowed to wager on action in which they have a personal stake. These nuances are what make The Player‘s universe so fascinating, and without them we’d be missing out on a lot.
We’re likely to conclude The Player without knowing if Mr. Johnson is a good guy or a bad guy, or how much he really had to do with Ginny’s abduction, or if he’ll be able to protect The House from its enemies. But perhaps that ambiguity is also Snipes’ and the writers’ biggest accomplishment. Johnson has been nowhere near as simple as first appearances made him appear to be, and while he himself would tell you that he’s no saint, we now look at him just the same way we’d look at any of the show’s other characters – as a completely realized, delightfully complex human being. One thing’s for sure: he’s definitely the boss.
The Player airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.