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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

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."

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