Sons of Anarchy, Episode One aired September 3rd 2008. By October, the series had garnered a large enough following to earn the cast the honor of riding at the head of Jay Leno’s hour-long charity “Love Ride” from Glendale to Pomona. “You will be riding in the front of the pack with Grand Marshall Jay Leno,” the letter to the cast reads. “Peter Fonda, Robert Patrick, Dave Grohl and William Shatner are among the other celebrities riding with you.”
At the finish line, the riders were met by series co-star Katey Sagal (best known prior to Sons for her role as Peg Bundy in Married With Children) and series creator Kurt Sutter. Entertainment included ZZ Top and The Foo Fighters. Johnny spent the day amazed and somewhat bemused by the tidal wave of adulation from a whole new demographic of fans.
Up to now, Johnny’s recognition had been limited to fans of The O.C., Drake and Josh, sitcoms such as Quintuplets and Now What, guest spots on, among many others, CSI, Boston Public, The Guardian, Smallville, and movies such as Raise Your Voice and Aliens vs. Predator — a largely middle and upper middle class group of 15- to 28-year-olds.
Sons of Anarchy changed that. Before Sons of Anarchy, if a fan recognized Johnny, he would obligingly say yes to an autograph and cell phone photo, and then carry on with whatever he had been doing prior to the interruption. Once Sons of Anarchy hit the airwaves, however, things changed. Instead of graciously accepting warmth and a respectful distance from fans, he now found himself regularly undergoing bone-crunching bear hugs from massive bikers who were certain they knew Johnny personally, as well as he most certainly must know them. They rarely let him go without first sharing a penetrating discussion, numerous additional man-hugs, and beer.
Johnny’s “Prospect” character was vital as it brought a note of welcome levity to an otherwise dark story involving dark people doing dark things. A vegetarian among carnivores, he provided us with the relief that comes with perspective, and was someone that we non-motorcycle types could identify with.
Though Johnny did not get as much screen time as other characters, there’d be an almost palpable exhalation of relief whenever he appeared. The break-neck pace of the story would slow down and catch its breath, sometimes even permitting itself a chuckle or two before resuming. A number of people over the years commented to me that they watched the show mainly for Johnny.