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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

(continued from page 2)

"When you travel a lot like I do, you see the walls coming down all over the world, and people being more accessible and open," he says. "Let's say more of a willingness to live collectively, to live together. And I see those walls coming down everywhere else but I see a lot of walls going up in America. It's becoming a place of regulation. It's almost to the point that you cannot turn around and talk to your neighbor without being sued or called a pedophile and ruined." Johnson, however, admitted at the end of last year that the situation may be changing in the wake of September 11's terrorist attacks. "I am a dyed—in—the—wool, patriotic American," says Johnson, "but America tends to be an isolated place and didn't understand in some ways its global effect. Now, after 9/11 we are all painfully aware of it. We Americans understand better that we are all in this together. If we haven't adopted it, we certainly are on our way."

Johnson would be the first to admit that he is no angel, and that his behavior at times makes interesting reading. From substance abuse, binge drinking and rocky relationships with wives and friends, he's been through some tough times in his life. Many of those periods have been written about in the press, almost always without his comment. "Today there is a different kind of journalism," he says. "Twenty years ago, a journalist and his interviewee, it was a relationship. It wasn't somebody who had predisposed ideas and who had the story already written. All some now need is to manipulate the subject to say the things that they needed to say. That might sound paranoid, or even inaccurate, but you know as well as I do that that happens. These stories are written before the writer ever shows up."

What the press seldom writes about is Johnson's professional talent. People who have worked on films with him say they respect his acting ability. "Don comes across as a good old boy, which he is," says Michael Figgis, who helped direct Johnson in the movie The Hot Spot in 1990 and is better known for Leaving Las Vegas. "But he is also a very good actor. Sometimes people seem to forget that." Among some of Johnson's recent films are Tin Cup with Kevin Costner in 1996 and Goodbye Lover in 1999. He plans to do more movies, including a three-film deal with Franchise Pictures.

Johnson says making movies will be a welcome change from the grind of a weekly television series, although he is working on a spy series for television. Johnson hopes it will "humanize the spy business like 'The Sopranos' humanized the Mafia." His long-time buddy Robert Wagner will be working on the European-based program.

He knows it will be difficult to top the success of "Nash Bridges." The series ran for six years with 124 episodes, and at its height of popularity, it had close to 20 million viewers, even airing against ABC's "20/20" on Friday nights. Johnson, as executive producer, was involved in every aspect of the program, from developing scripts to directing and editing as well as playing the title character. "Anybody, any actor, any director, will tell you that the hardest job in show business is doing a weekly series," he says, "because you work 16, 14, 15 hours a day, five days a week."

While press reports say CBS dropped "Nash Bridges" because it was too expensive to produce, Johnson says it was mostly a result of "political problems" connected to the change of ownership of Rysher Entertainment, which had co-owned the program with him.

No one can deny that Johnson has succeeded. Many in show business must have thought that he was just about finished after "Miami Vice." Although he had a few minor successes in movies and television following the series, he did very little interesting work, according to some entertainment executives, until "Nash Bridges."

"You have to hand it to Don Johnson," says Kay Koplovitz, the founder and former chairwoman of USA Networks, which now airs "Nash Bridges" on its cable channel five days a week. "Few actors have come off of a program as popular as 'Miami Vice,' where they are so closely associated with a series, and then re-created themselves to do another show such as 'Nash Bridges.' "

So is Johnson better known for "Miami Vice" or "Nash Bridges"? "You know, what really is great is the fact that you had to ask the question," he says. "It's a great question because I've beaten the game. It's that I have somehow beaten the mold of being anything but Don Johnson. What I'm trying to say is, it's very, very hard to be so identified with one character and then overcome that character to be identified as an individual and then create another character in another successful show and still maintain your own identity as a person."

Johnson says he very much enjoyed life in San Francisco, where he met his current wife, Kelley, a 33-year-old from a well-established San Francisco family. She has nothing to do with show business, having spent most of her early career as a nursery school teacher. The two met at a birthday party for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The tall, gorgeous brunette is soft-spoken, articulate and easygoing. She doesn't seem to mind Johnson's lifestyle. She concentrates on bringing up their 21-month-old daughter and meeting the challenges of keeping a home environment with Johnson's demanding schedule of filming, promoting and traveling to their various homes and hideaways around the world. Johnson also owns a small island off the south coast of Vietnam, to which he escapes twice a year, and an apartment in Los Angeles.

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