Donnie Wayne Johnson was born December 15, 1949, in Flat Creek, Missouri, to Nell (née Wilson) (1933-1975), a beautician, and Freddie Wayne Johnson (1930–2017), a farmer. At the time of his birth, Johnson’s mother and father were 17 and 19 years old, respectively. Johnson was raised in poverty in Wichita, Kansas, where his parents relocated when he was six years old.

He graduated from Wichita South High School, where he was involved in the high school’s theatre program. As a senior, he played the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. His biography noted that he had previously appeared in Burnt Cork & Melody and The Hullabaloo. After graduating from high school in 1967, he enrolled at the University of Kansas as a theatre major, but dropped out after one year. He subsequently relocated to San Francisco, California, to attend the American Conservatory Theater.