Life After Miami Vice
After years of chasing crooks on TV, Don Johnson finds time for the good life.
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02
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By the time Johnson left, he says, it felt like home, different from his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado, but equally welcoming. "A number of people said to me towards the end of my stay that I would be surprised how many people came to the area asking if Don Johnson lived around here," Johnson says, implying that the paparazzi and press were hot on his trail. "And they all said no. 'No, he doesn't live anywhere near here.' Isn't that amazing? Think about that being in America. You know what they would say? 'You bet he does! He's right up the road, there on the right.' I'm not saying one is good and one is bad. It's just for me, at this particular moment, that is awfully nice."
The flip side is that it often doesn't hurt when someone recognizes you as Don Johnson. During his holiday, he and a friend were riding Harley Davidsons back to his villa after a day of visiting wineries in the region of Montalcino. Johnson was cruising the gently winding roads on his Road King Harley in shorts, T-shirt and sandals, without a helmet or any protection. His friend, Italian vintner Gaetani d'Aragona Lovatelli, was similarly dressed, and even sported tattoos and long hair that made him look like an extra from the bikers classic Easy Rider. The police who stopped them on their way home were not impressed, especially since Italy had established a strict helmet law just last year.
"They were not too happy at first, I have to say," recalls Johnson. 'But you know, they both soon recognized me, and they said, 'You're that cop. You're Don Johnson.' We talked for a while and they let us off. You know, at times, it doesn't hurt to be the best-known cop on earth."
The image of Johnson as a sleek police investigator in Miami wearing a white suit and dark tan, carrying a foot-long handgun and driving a Ferrari is an icon of the 1980s for many people around the world. It captured a moment, a time of excitement and excess. America was seen as decadently rich, and the 111 episodes of "Miami Vice" made the lifestyle chic and glamorous. "Everyone lived it," says Johnson. "Everyone dressed it, looked it, thought it and acted 'Miami Vice.' Every television program, every song and every video had something to do with it. It was all built around 'Miami Vice.' "Even 16 years after 'Miami Vice' aired," he adds, "there are still little kids, six and seven years old, who come up to me on the street and say, 'Hey, man! You're that cat that was in "Miami Vice" '!"
Johnson doesn't think the success of "Miami Vice" was just a question of luck, though, or even timing. He attributes it mostly to the show's executive producer, Michael Mann, who, he believes, was one of the first to contemporize television. According to Johnson, Mann applied the techniques of serious filmmaking to a weekly series, using everything from better scripts, music and cinematography to the best in lighting, cutting and editing. Plus, he notes, Mann was the driving force behind Johnson's acting career, which had been close to nowhere.
"For anybody, let alone someone coming from Missouri, and someone with absolutely no contacts or no understanding of the business, I was very lucky," says Johnson, who auditioned for the part in Miami while working on a low-budget film about Vietnam called Cease Fire. It was his first major break after scraping by in numerous low-budget films, although he was something of a cult figure for his 1970s movies A Boy and His Dog and The Harrad Experimen. "When 'Miami Vice' came along I wasn't even aware that it was a hit for a year and a half. I swear. I was so focused in just doing the work. I knew we were big. You couldn't help it. But it was like a dream. I said to myself: 'Don't pinch me; I'll just stay working so nothing changes.'"
But it did change. As a superstar, he became a favorite of the press, with both positive and negative repercussions. His partying, womanizing and highly publicized marriages to star Melaine Griffith were popular topics for the press, particularly the tabloids. While his bon-vivant lifestyle and outspoken demeanor are easily accepted in Europe, Johnson believes he receives an unfair amount of bad press in America.
"I remember the first negative article that somebody wrote about me," he says. "I remember this as distinctly as if it were yesterday. It was a terrible story, taken out of context and basically editorialized. And I fretted about it. It got to the point where a family member sold a story to one of the tabloids. I couldn't believe it."
But then one day while he was filming "Miami Vice," he received a telephone call while relaxing in his dressing room. It was actress Jane Fonda, whom Johnson had known since he was 19. She said that he sounded depressed. He explained all the bad press and she quickly responded, "Don. You're on the phone with Hanoi Jane. Get over it."
"You know, I got over it," Johnson says in a less—than—convincing way, and then admits otherwise. "You know, it's easy to say. But it's not easy to do because it's a very brutal game out there. It's a very, very difficult thing for an artist to learn that not everybody is going to love you. That's a difficult lesson. Because part of your passion [as an actor] is the joy that you bring to someone else when you're doing your work." Not only can criticism be cruel, it also can be very expensive. Responding to libelous and slanderous remarks costs money, and Johnson uses the services of the top press agents and lawyers in the business. The most recent example occurred in February 2001, when Johnson was accused of making lewd remarks to a woman in a San Francisco restaurant. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a number of articles about the accusation and Johnson responded with letters from his lawyer and publicists. He wanted to run them in a full-page ad, but the newspaper refused. He ended up publishing them on his Web site claiming that the stories were unfair and sensational. The case was thrown out of court last summer by a San Francisco judge, although the woman is still suing Johnson for civil damages.
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