Searching For Tony

ByABC News
January 10, 2007, 1:02 PM

Jan. 12, 2007— -- Who is Anthony Godby Johnson? To many, he was a 14-year-old author with a heart-rending story: he was dying of advanced syphilis, AIDs, had his leg amputated, and had suffered 54 broken bones -- both at the hands of his biological parents, and others. The story that first aired on "20/20" in July 2006 now has fascinating new developments.

For more than a decade, Tony Johnson's story sparked the interest of a publishing company, a movie studio, and even this network. But was it a true tale? Does the boy even exist? Or, as some believe, was it all a hoax?

The story that captivated millions of readers and viewers across the country began in Union City, New Jersey. Tony lived, the story goes, in Union City with Vicki Johnson, a social worker who had adopted him.

She'd saved him from a harrowing life in New York City where he'd been abused and forced into prostitution by his biological parents.

The story was first told in Tony's inspirational autobiography, "A Rock and a Hard Place," an astonishingly impressive work for a 14-year-old. Published in 1993, the book had six paperback printings.

Eventually, the heartbreaking story attracted the eye of movie-makers. Ron Bernstein, an agent at the well-known talent agency International Creative Management, Inc., sold Tony's book to HBO.

"I said to HBO, 'don't do your usual cheap deal with me. This kid is dying! You gotta do it for the kid,'" said Bernstein. "[It] made people feel good about themselves. It was, 'I don't care how bad my life is, there's somebody whose life is much worse and they're not beaten down.'"

Bernstein says he was among those charmed over the phone by the boy. Tony spent hours talking with friends and supporters, including San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin.

"He would call just out of the blue and start talking to me," said Maupin.

Maupin says it didn't strike him as odd that he was developing a phone friendship with a 14-year-old boy.

"It struck me as wonderful. He was saying 'I love you' in the way that a kid says it to a parent or an adult that's really close to them," said Maupin. "It's a level of intimacy that was quite extraordinary, maybe even stronger because it was on the phone -- just a voice in the night talking to you who seems to understand you, to respect you, to need you."

Tony's increasingly dramatic story was part of a 1997 ABC special titled "About Us: The Dignity of Children." Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the Emmy-nominated special about the resilience of children was watched by millions. Tony himself was played by an actor, but his own voice narrated his story.