Living up to legend
When Molly Meldrum was asked who should play him in a new miniseries based on his incredible life, he had just one name in mind.
COUNTLESS Australians grew up watching Molly Meldrum on Countdown. Samuel Johnson was not one of them.
“I was raised without a television,” Johnson says.
“Dad was a bit of a bookworm and treated TV as an unwanted narcotic.”
Johnson, 37, first saw Molly on Hey Hey It’s Saturday in the late ’80s when he’d go to friends’ houses.
Cut to 2016 and Johnson is Molly Meldrum in Seven’s twopart miniseries Molly.
The actor, best known for The Secret Life of Us and Rush, spent most of last year either portraying or researching the Australian music and TV icon.
Friends with Johnson’s father and the whole family for years, Meldrum was watching Johnson embark on his unicycle journey around Australia in February 2014 to raise money for breast cancer (his sister Connie is battling the disease) when the seed was planted for the casting.
“I told Sam’s other sister Hilde they’d just started work on this miniseries about me,” Meldrum recalls.
“She asked who was playing me, I told her they hadn’t cast it yet and she said, ‘What about Sam?’ That made total sense to me.”
Meldrum’s vote wasn’t enough to greenlight Johnson, who auditioned for the role.
“And my audition was terrible,” he admits. “Most of my auditions are. Nerves get the better of me which means I’m not present with the character, which means I don’t get the role!”
That didn’t stop Johnson fighting to be cast.
“Obviously having Molly in my corner was essential to me getting the role. I’ve known Molly for a long time. I wanted someone who knew Molly to play him. We share many beliefs, we have a similar sense of humour and we’ve both got a miscreant within us. I didn’t have to search too far.
“(But) as vocal as Molly was in support of me we still did need network approval. Thankfully that came.
“It’s weird to think if I had never embarked on that unicycle ride I would never have been gifted the role. It’s a nice piece of synchronicity for me.”
Once cast, Johnson knew one wardrobe item was crucial – the cowboy hat. Luckily he already had one of Meldrum’s hats in his own wardrobe.
“Molly had given me a hat years ago, way before I even got the role, way before this telemovie even existed. For six months I’d sit in front of a mirror, in that hat, copying Molly as I was watching him on You Tube on Countdown.”
Johnson says it was important his Molly wasn’t a parody.
“Whenever an actor plays a real person you have to tread a fine line – I didn’t want to mimic Molly, I wanted to represent him. If I was just copying him it would probably come out like a Fast Forward sketch. And it wasn’t easy. Acting is incredibly difficult without the pressure of playing a national icon.”
While he’s been busy fundraising (he received an Order of Australia medal last week for his efforts) and doing his voiceover work, Johnson is hoping Molly will remind audiences and the industry he’s an actor.
“Hopefully this signifies the end of the plateau in my career. Hopefully I’ll get some work off the back of this.”
SEVEN, TONIGHT, 8.30PM
Transformed: Above, Samuel Johnson portrays the Aussie TV icon in Molly; right, Molly Meldrum.