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
It's just after 10 p.m. on a Siena summer evening and Don Johnson is struggling to say something. Of course, he is trying to speak Italian. "E fantastico. E incredibile," he says, waving his hands above his head as if he's a local. "L'energia. La bellezza."
The actor is attempting to describe his feelings about the Palio horse race to a table filled with Italians who do not speak English. The race, which finished a few hours before, is a free-for-all of a dozen or so bareback riders who speed around a makeshift dirt track in the Tuscan city's town square. It is the event of the year here, and more like a religious rite than a spectacle for most locals; so describing it to Italians in pidgin Italian is not an easy task.
"How do you say that the race is absolutely crazy?" he asks an American next to him, after realizing that his Italian vocabulary and grammar have just run out of steam. "Hell, just tell them that it's organized anarchy," he adds, as he sips a glass of 1995 Brunello and smokes a cigarette.
Johnson has been vacationing in Tuscany for close to a month with his wife, Kelley, and their young toddler, Grace. The hills of bella Toscana seem a long way from the spotlights of San Francisco, where he recently wrapped up a long and successful television series, "Nash Bridges." The fresh air, good food, fine wine and friendly people must seem the antithesis of what most people around the world best know Johnson for: Sonny Crockett, the slick lead character of the 1980s television series "Miami Vice." But that's just fine with the 52-year-old. He's enjoying every minute in Tuscany.
"Why do I love Italy?" asks Johnson. "Nearly everyone who comes to Italy knows why. It's the people. And the fact that they're living. They know how to live and they're living it. And everyone else [outside of Italy] is still experimenting.
"The people of Italy are very genuine," he adds. "It's always you before them. They always make you feel more special. You know, that's not something that I crave. It's something that happens when you're a celebrity. But here in Italy, all you have to be is a good person and you get treated the right way." It's been a revolving door this July at his rented villa, located about an hour's drive south of Florence. At times, Johnson admits that he isn't sure if he is running a hotel or a restaurant, considering the number of visitors he's entertained. Each day, if he's not sightseeing, he's throwing a big lunch or dinner for a large group. He loves having people around him, sharing the good life with them. He must be one of America's great bon vivants, whether appreciating three-star Michelin food, hard-to-find bottles of Italian reds or aged Cuban cigars. "Life's too short to drink bad wine or smoke poor cigars," he says, during a lunch that includes a bottle of 1997 Masseto, one of Italy's most vaunted bottles of Merlot.
He enjoys conversation with everybody at the table, whether old friends or new acquaintances. He almost never talks about himself, a rarity among actors, who so often come off as egocentric. Instead, he asks others about themselves and focuses on what they have to say. As handsome as ever, although slightly softer in proportions since he has been on holiday in Italy, he is the life of a party, always keeping the energy high. He's soon calling every male member of the party "bubba" or "buddy" as if they are long-lost best friends.
"I like to have really fine things," says Johnson, who even on vacation has a cellar well—stocked with super Tuscan reds such as Sassicaia and Masseto. He also counts fine Cubans like Cohiba Esplendido and Montecristo No. 2. torpedo cigars among his favorites. "I have a great appreciation for fine art, fine homes, fine wine, fine cigars and fine friends."
The actor first came to Tuscany in 1985 during the height of "Miami Vice." He had made a trip to Germany to special-order a 959 Porsche from the factory in Stuttgart, and the president of the famed car company lent him a 600 Mercedes for a few weeks while the sports car was being assembled. "I blasted down through Italy with my bodyguard, or maybe I should say 'buddy' guard," recalls Johnson. "And the first place I stopped, God rest his soul, was Gianni Versace's palazzo on Lake Como. It was beautiful. Then I went to Milan, stayed there for a couple of days, and then I went to Florence. When I got to Florence, I was blown away. It was the light. I just couldn't believe it. I fell in love with Tuscany."
He's been coming back ever since, and hopes to one day split his time between his ranch in Aspen, Colorado and central Italy. His most recent experience of renting a villa for a month in the hills of Tuscany convinced him that he needs to spend a year or two living in Italy, or maybe even buy property. "I loved renting a villa in Tuscany this year," he says. "It was fantastic. This little town that I stayed near -- I'm not going to say the name -- I loved it. I had a routine. I went to that town every day on my Harley to get the paper. I would talk to the local people, just like a neighbor. I asked them about themselves. I asked them about their children. I made friends. I became part of the community."
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.
"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.
Johnson's real home remains his ranch outside of Aspen in a place called Woody Creek. This is the same Woody Creek made famous by gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, with whom Johnson is close friends. (He jokes that he remains out of Thompson's mortar range.) "I've been there for 20 years or so and it's home," Johnson says fondly of his 20-acre ranch. "It's a working ranch. I have cattle and I have a bunch of horses and stuff. But it's really a working ranch for 12-year-olds. I built it for myself. In other words, it has everything on there that you would need to keep a 12-year-old interested and happy. Dirt bikes and snowmobiles and trampolines and Harley Davidsons. But the toys aren't really the thing. The thing that I really love most about there is the lifestyle. It's actually living. It's America. And I'm a good-old red-blooded American boy. And that'll never go away."
Donnie Wayne Johnson came into this world on December 15, 1949, in Flat Creek, Missouri. His mother was a beautician and his father an aircraft mechanic. He grew up with one sister and two younger brothers. His parents divorced when he was almost a teenager; so he spent most of his teen years between Flat Creek, where his father lived, and Wichita, Kansas, where his mother lived. He's still very close with his father, sister and brothers. "Oh yeah, we're very close," he says happily. "We're father and son, and business partners. We've got some things down in Missouri. I own the house where I was born. My sister is a songwriter and she lives in California. My two younger brothers have nothing to do with show business. They're just good old boys. One of them is a tool and die maker and the other a heavy equipment operator. That's the heartland of America there."
Johnson had a few run-ins with the law (joyriding in cars among other things) during his adolescence, before he graduated from Wichita South High School in 1967. He received a scholarship in drama to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, but dropped out after a couple of semesters to move to the West Coast to pursue an acting career. In 1975, Johnson starred in the sci-fi film A Boy and His Dog, a post- apocalyptic tale set in 2024 about a young man and his canine companion who rely on each another to survive. Johnson's character provides the dog with food and the dog finds his master female companionship in return. They communicate telepathically, the dog offering comic relief by way of his sardonic quips.
A Boy and His Dog was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s in campus film festivals. His 1973 film, The Harrad Experiment, about a college that tests coed housing, was another film—society favorite. It was also where he met Melanie Griffith, whose mother, Tippi Hedren, acted in the film. Johnson and Griffith were married for a few months in 1975 . Griffith was only 18 and he was 26. They remarried in 1989 and divorced again in 1995.
Despite early success, Johnson considered himself a country boy with little knowledge of the film or television business until his audition for "Miami Vice." He still considers himself something of a good old boy. "Growing up in Missouri, you learn real values about people," says Johnson. "You learn about what it takes to work hard and to respect one another. There's a real sense of community."
His family, particularly his children, still make up the group closest to him. Not only is he crazy about his youngest, Grace, Johnson is very close to his son, Jesse, 19, his child with actress Patti D'Arbanville, and Dakota, 12, his daughter with Melanie Griffith. "I just love kids," he says. "They are so much fun to be with."
Back at the party in Siena, Johnson and Kelley have been looking at their wristwatches for close to 20 minutes. The night is young by Italian standards: just after 11:30 p.m. But the Johnsons are ready to call it a night. "We have to go home and look after little Gracie," says Johnson, as he, Kelley and a couple of friends climb into a taxi.
After checking on their young daughter when they get home, Johnson is ready to share a bottle of 1997 Sassicaia, smoke a Cohiba Esplendido and strum a few chords on his classical guitar. "You know the thing that being in Italy has taught me?" he says, puffing away on his cigar. "You gotta live right now. Not until you make that extra hundred million or that big hit movie or win the Oscar or do this or to do that, although I hope to do all those things. But I'm going to do them at an Italian pace."
Six months after his Tuscan summer, Johnson feels even more convinced that it's important to "live for the moment" and "live well together." Like most of us, he's horrified with the events of September 11, but he hopes that something positive comes of them. "Everything after September 11 has to have an asterisk, before and after," he said in a phone conversation from his ranch in Colorado. He's not drinking at the moment nor smoking cigarettes, but a great cigar remains one of his continued pleasures. "All of that changed our lives … the world has changed forever. But this crisis has been an invitation to our spirit. We are all neighbors. And we must find good in all people."
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