'Licence to Kill' actor and Olympic champion Rafer Johnson passes away aged 86

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·3 min read
Olympic champion Rafer Johnson appeared in the James Bond film 'Licence to Kill'. (Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images/Eon/MGM)
Olympic champion Rafer Johnson appeared in the James Bond film 'Licence to Kill'. (Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images/Eon/MGM)

Rafer Johnson, who is best known for his athletics career and his performance in James Bond movie Licence to Kill, has passed away at the age of 86.

Johnson won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon in 1960, besting the silver medal he earned at the previous Games in 1956.

Read more: Licence to Kill and other misunderstood movies

He later became involved in politics and helped to subdue the shooter responsible for assassinating US senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Johnson, who was dubbed an “American hero” by many who knew him, passed away on Wednesday after suffering a stroke.

Rafer Johnson (centre) with the other medal winners for the 1960 Olympics decathlon event. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images)
Rafer Johnson (centre) with the other medal winners for the 1960 Olympics decathlon event. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images)

After his Olympic victory, Johnson transitioned into an acting career that saw him appear most notably as DEA agent Mullens in the 1989 Bond adventure Licence to Kill.

Alongside on-screen cop partner Grand L. Bush, he appeared in the opening sequence as Bond and Felix Leiter attempt to apprehend drug kingpin Franz Sanchez.

Read more: Details of Sir Sean Connery’s lost James Bond performance

Bush paid tribute to his co-star in a statement on Twitter, noting the “impressive credits” Johnson was able to amass.

He added: “He was an American hero, an icon, and bears a legacy we should all aspire to.

“It was my absolute honour to work alongside Mr. Johnson in Licence To Kill — something I will treasure and never forget."

Johnson moved into Hollywood work in earnest as his athletics career wound down, having previously been offered a role in Spartacus via his friend Kirk Douglas.

He had to turn down that gig as it would have him made him a professional and therefore ineligible for the Olympics, but he made his movie debut in 1961 in Second World War drama The Sins of Rachel Cade.

That movie saw him star alongside future James Bond leading man Roger Moore.

Licence to Kill served as one of Johnson’s final movie credits alongside trucker comedy Think Big, which was also released in 1989.

Rafer Johnson before pushing the ignition switch to light the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's Olympic cauldron on September 17, 2017. (Credit: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)
Rafer Johnson before pushing the ignition switch to light the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's Olympic cauldron on September 17, 2017. (Credit: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

As well as his acting work, Johnson continued to use his influence in the world of sport.

He was part of the organising committee for the first Special Olympics event in 1968 and was later president of the organisation from 1983 until 1992 — after which he became chairman of the board of governors.

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In the late 1960s, Johnson began working on the presidential campaign of then-senator Robert F. Kennedy.

He was one of several people who were involved in subduing and disarming Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan after he fatally shot the politician in 1968.

Johnson later recalled twisting Sirhan’s fingers to get the gun loose and putting it in his pocket, forgetting about it until hours later when he handed it to police.

Watch: Tributes to acting legend and original 007 Sir Sean Connery