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.
Johnson then re-teamed with Craven for the director's telemovie Night Visions (1990), about a tough L.A. cop (James Remar) who solicits the help of a psychic (Loryn Locklin) to root out a serial murderer. Craven and co. shot that effort as a pilot for a prospective series, but it never took off. In 1992, the actress returned to pay cable by joining the cast of The Larry Sanders Show, comedian Garry Shandling's HBO satire about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at a late-night, Carson-style talk program. Johnson struck gold with that move; the show lasted until 1998 and became a massive runaway hit and a critical darling.
After small turns in two A-list cinematic releases -- 1993's Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do With It? (as Lorraine) and Rusty Cundieff's 1994 gangsta rap satire Fear of a Black Hat (as Re-Re) -- Johnson carved a permanent niche for herself on three number-one television series, sequentially Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, ER, and 24. In the first, she played Kasidy Yates, a stunningly gorgeous freighter captain who meets and falls in love with Benjamin Sisko, but is indefinitely abandoned by him when he moves into another dimension with The Prophets. She then donned a nurse's uniform for a season (1998-1999) as Lynette Evans at ER's Chicago County General Hospital, alongside co-stars George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, and others, and keyed up for her most prominent role: Sherry Palmer, the wife of Senator David Palmer, and essentially a shrewd, diabolical, Lady Macbeth-like character willing to break any and every moral precept to lock down the presidency of her husband.
More recently, Johnson portrayed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in the 2003 TV movie DC 9/11: Time of Crisis and again in another TV movie, The Path to 9/11, in 2006. Johnson married her husband, musician Gralin Jerald, in 1982. They have one daughter. In her off time, Johnson is actively involved with her church and with many progressive social causes; she played a significant role in securing aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina.