Houlton native performs ‘most dangerous act yet’ on NBC reality show, but some judges unconvinced

Sam Johnson, also known as Circus Sam, rides a unicycle on a slack line during his performance at the Bangor State Fair on Friday, July 27, 2007.
Bridget Brown | BDN
Sam Johnson, also known as Circus Sam, rides a unicycle on a slack line during his performance at the Bangor State Fair on Friday, July 27, 2007. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 20, 2013, at 10:32 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 21, 2013, at 7:15 a.m.

Houlton native Sam Johnson elicited gasps from the “America’s Got Talent” judges and audience Tuesday night with his death-defying performance — but some of the judges weren’t convinced it was dangerous enough.

Johnson, 34, had hinted in an interview late last week that his performance in week five of the reality show competition would be the most dangerous he’d performed for the cameras to date.

Outside New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall, Johnson climbed atop an 80-foot sway pole, similar to the device on which he performed his initial audition for “AGT.” He put his feet in stirrup-like holders atop the pole and waved to the crowd below as the pole swayed in the wind. Then, Johnson flipped upside down, slid his foot through a rope noose and the sway pole suddenly dropped like a pendulum, taking Johnson with it.

“If things go wrong tonight, they’re going to go really wrong,” Johnson, who now lives in Vermont, said prior to his Tuesday night performance.

On his first appearance, Johnson climbed atop an 80-foot sway pole set up outside the show’s studios, and then, completely untethered, did a handstand. For his second performance, he doused his signature top hat with gasoline and lit it on fire, before pouring gasoline over his head, and putting the hat back on. He then climbed up onto a slack line stretched across the stage, proceeded to mount a unicycle and then juggled three batons, which also were on fire.

When Johnson found out he was advancing in the eighth season of the “AGT” competition and would be performing on New York City’s famous Radio City Music Hall stage, he knew he had to do something big. He decided to go back to his performing roots, but since the equipment was so old — it was almost 30 years old when he purchased at age 19 from a Swedish circus performer — Johnson had to rebuild most of what was left.

“[I] only had had a five week window to build, test and practice on this equipment,” he said.

But three of the four judges — Heidi Klum was the exception — weren’t convinced that viewers will think Johnson’s act was dangerous enough to vote him through to the next round.

“It is a danger act. And it was cool. And it was windy and you did surprise us,” said judge Howie Mandell, comparing the performance to a bungee jump with a pole. “[But] my gut instinct is, ‘I want to do that.’”

Judge Howard Stern agreed.

“Each time, you have to get progressively more dangerous, and this time you were having more fun than we were,” Stern said. “We should not want to do it, and that’s the problem.”

“Did you guys watch what I watched,” Klum shot back. “That was super exciting, and a little insane and crazy. I want to see more of what you do. I think you have a lot of talent.”

Johnson took it all in stride.

“It may not have felt dangerous to you, but it sure felt dangerous to me,” he said, adding that he was glad of one thing. “It’s a good thing it’s America’s vote.”

To find out if America decides to vote Johnson through to the next round, watch the live results show at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, on NBC or check bangordailynews.com after the results show.

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