Although she officially launched her dramatic career on the big screen, with bit parts in Jonathan Demme's nostalgic period piece Swing Shift (1984) and Wes Craven's gore picture The Hills Have Eyes, Part II (1984), African-American actress Penny Johnson (also occasionally credited by her full married name, Penny Johnson Jerald) gained broadest recognition as a network mainstay on innumerable short-lived and long-running U.S. television series. Her presence on the glitter box quickly became so widespread, in fact, that devoted prime-time viewers who fail to connect with Johnson's name will invariably identify her countenance.
Born March 14, 1961, in Baltimore, MD, Johnson recognized acting as her life's work while a teenager, and subsequently commenced dramatic training at her home city's Centre Stage Theatre, at age 13, by lying about her age to get in. (She claimed to be 14 -- the ensemble's minimum age requirement.) The ruse worked, and Johnson's success with that troupe encouraged her to subsequently perform in a traveling ensemble (as a mime, juggler, and fire eater) with the Baltimore-based Theatre Project, and attend university for dramatic training at Juilliard several years later. After the aforementioned film roles, Johnson segued into television, first with a brief ongoing role as Debbie on the daytime soap General Hospital (in 1986), then as university law student Vivian on the Showtime pay cable service's revival of the late '70s CBS series The Paper Chase, retitled The Paper Chase: The Second Year (a role she sustained from 1984-1986). After guest spots on such programs as The Jeffersons, Simon & Simon, and Tour of Duty, Johnson landed one of the leads on the very short-lived ABC sitcom Homeroom -- starring as Virginia "Vicki" Harper, the medical-student wife of adman-turned-fourth grade teacher Darryl Harper (Darryl Sivad). That program premiered on September 24, 1989, and wrapped not three months later, unable to find an audience.