America's Favorite Vice
Miami. It’s raining, a steamy, oppressive drizzle that even at 8 a.m. seeps into the skin like an enervating virus. You’d never know it, though, from the hopped-up crowd maneuvering outside the small Hokin art gallery in an exclusive shopping area. Word has leaked that a camera crew is here shooting a scene for Miami Vice, NBC’s state of the art in hip cop shows, which just began its second season last Friday, after winning four Emmys and spending a summer of reruns in Top-10 Nielsen heaven. Much has been written about how the show’s fusion of fashion, rock video and violence has helped lift a struggling NBC into prime-time ratings supremacy. But this crowd could not care less. They’re here to see and—heck, why not?—touch a star.
When Philip Michael Thomas, 36, who plays detective Ricardo Tubbs, waves at the fans, there are shrieks. But the real object of their craning and contortions remains elusive. He is Don Johnson, 35, the show’s paragon of sexy, sockless, unshaven charm as detective Sonny Crockett. With his Versace jackets, linen pants and pastel T-shirts, Johnson has become the dishiest clotheshorse since Travolta inspired even the paunchiest of would-be male peacocks to squeeze into white disco suits. And Johnson may have the edge on Travolta as an object of erotic fantasy. Recently Cybill Shepherd, who co-stars with Johnson on next week’s NBC movie The Long Hot Summer, excitedly crossed her legs at the mention of his name. “Look at me,” said Shepherd, swinging her top leg. “Body language, it’s a dead giveaway.”
The crowd agrees. Johnson’s audience knows him well, down to his height (5’11”), weight (170) and notorious reputation. There’s Don the loser (some half dozen flop flicks, at least four fizzled TV pilots); Don the lady-killer (three marriages, countless entanglements); Don the alcoholic and drug addict. This is old news, of course. Miami Wee and the rehabilitation of his four-year relationship with actress Patti D’Arbanville (mother of son Jesse, 2) have transformed Johnson into a prosperous, vitamin-enriched version of his former self. But the bad raps haven’t stopped; they’ve merely been replaced with new ones. Now it’s Don the egomaniac, a star said to be so flushed with success that he’s high-handed with the press, fans and co-workers, determined to overshadow co-star Thomas, and given to throwing tantrums on the set when he doesn’t get his way.
In the art gallery the atmosphere is noticeably tense. The tiny room, crammed with cables, lights and technicians, is stifling (they turn off the noisy air-conditioning every time the cameras roll). Johnson abrutly breaks off a scene he’s doing with Thomas and guest star John (After Hours) Heard. “This just isn’t playing,” he snaps at Wee writer Craig Bolotin, who is making his debut as a director with this episode. “It isn’t fast enough,” says Johnson, rolling his eyes in exasperation. “Do it this way.” They do. It’s better. Is Mr. Miami Vice really not so nice? “Sure, Don has a serious ego,” Thomas has said. “It sometimes causes bad vibes. But there is a lot of joy here.” A drive to make the show better, Thomas says, is a quality he and Johnson share. “I told Don we were going to have to direct this one ourselves,” says Thomas. “It’s not a matter of conceit. We have the responsibility of making him [Bolotin] look good so he won’t make us look bad.”
Thomas flatly rejects the feud rumors. Of the Emmy nomination Don won and he didn’t, Thomas says, “I’m so proud for him. I know how much a part of that I am.” Still, Thomas—a divorced father—concedes that he and Johnson aren’t as social this season as they were in the first. “We used to jog together and lift weights, but there isn’t time now. We work 12 to 18 hours a day, five days a week, so when we do go home, we sleep.”
But if Thomas and Johnson share work methods, their styles sharply diverge when the cameras stop rolling. When lunch break is called, Thomas—with bodyguard brother George at his side—ingratiates himself like a born romancer into the crowd of fans wilting in the hazy, 86°F sun.
Johnson’s approach is, uh, different. Puffing on a Merit (he smokes about a pack and a half a day) and tense from a hard morning, he rushes out the door with Ron Russell, his 6’1″, 240-pound bodyguard, in tow. “He’s too busy,” says Russell, gently sidetracking fans who get uncomfortably close. Johnson dashes for his 40-foot motor home—complete with kitchen, wall-to-wall bed, mirrored bathroom and VCR—parked on the street.
Like his new 500 SEL Mercedes, the trailer is silver gray. “The only color,” says Don as he settles onto a gray couch and peers through the blinds at the crowd gathered outside. He starts by admitting, “I’m different than I used to be. You know that Cyndi Lauper song, Money Changes Everything?’ It’s true.” NBC recently raised Johnson’s weekly paycheck to about $30,000 (with his various other projects, Don will bag close to $1 million this year). But Johnson denies his head has swelled along with his wallet. “Sometimes I’m just awful on the show,” he says. “It’s very difficult to keep it fresh and new.” To maintain his drive, Don takes “a hands-on attitude toward everything. I try to be diplomatic, but I know that I’m very demanding to work with.” Says Vice producer John Nicolella: “If Don calls someone a boob-head, certainly I know where it’s going and why. He doesn’t want to accept mediocrity.”
At first Johnson bristles about his press image as an egomaniac. “I’d rather be at home wrestling with my son than worrying about some bullshit they say about me.” Later he admits, “It kind of hurts my feelings,” especially digging up sins of the past. “How much are you going to use of that?” he challenges. The lies in the tabloids enrage him the most. “I’m amazed they can get away with that trash.” A visitor jokes that one day he might even see an article headlined: Don Johnson Has Sex With Chickens. Don laughs loudly. “How’d they find out?” The laughter relieves the tension. “I’m having fun with my life,” Don insists. “Hell, that’s what it’s all about.”
Not always. The chasing mobs he attracts have cut into his time and freedom. “People basically want contact,” says Johnson, who confesses that big crowds worry him. He has devised a method to deal with autograph seekers. “The kids I can never deny,” he says, “but I give these to grown-ups.” Johnson hands over a white business card on which the following words are printed in blue: Sorry you caught me at an inconvenient moment. Thank you for appreciating my work. If you would like an autographed picture, please write to: Don Johnson Fan Club, 2895 Biscayne Blvd., Suite 395, Miami, Florida 33137/Signed/Don Johnson. “Isn’t that clever?” he asks.
Dressed in beige suit and shirt and wearing no tie or socks (the man knows how to work a trademark when he creates one), Johnson arrives a mere three minutes late for dinner at Tulipano, his favorite local Italian restaurant. Released from the day’s labors, he looks tan, rested. But up close the poster-boy face is weathered. “A lot of my friends are getting tucks and pinches and pulls,” says Don. “I can’t imagine that. I have lived my whole life waiting for character lines.” Don’s mood is expansive. He laughs at his Italian Vogue-ish trendy style of dress. “Here’s the only look I ever liked and felt individual in, and now every guy, his brother and his dog are wearing it.” Don even gives up his secret for maintaining a perpetual two-day stubble: “I shave with a sideburn trimmer.”
Over a mozzarella and tomato salad and a bottle of San Pellegrino water(“l never drink alcohol anymore”), he talks of filming The Long Hot Summer last spring in Louisiana with Cybill Shepherd, another reported handful on the set. “Cybill, Cybill, Cybill,” he says, “she’s the greatest. I could have a serious affair with Cybill. Most people don’t get along with her. Not me. I would say, ‘Knock that shit off.’ I’d love to work with her as a director.” Doing a Faulkner piece like Summer was a “stretch,” for Johnson, and he’d like more. Believe it or not, he’s just finished reading Richard Ill again. “I want to go back to the theater someday,” he says. “Roots, babe, you’ve gotta stay on top of things.”
For the moment, Johnson admits, his Miami Vice role is a long way from Shakespeare. “It’s a real problem. I never wanted to be the sex god idol of the universe.” Sometimes, Don adds, his fame embarrasses him, as at a recent charity auction that brought in $5,000 for one of his T-shirts (he’d used it to wipe his sweaty brow during the auction). But his popularity also has a plus side. Johnson earned high marks for an Emmy-nominated antidrug TV announcement, making up for the “land speed record” he previously set in booze and cocaine. “You use drugs,” the message says in part. “I’ve been where you are.”
Johnson had a troubled boyhood in Missouri (his birthplace) and later in Wichita, Kans. after his parents’ divorce. The oldest child of a rancher and a housewife (he has two brothers, a sister and a stepsister), Don’s exploits could make a new TV series: A car theft at 12, leaving home at 15 and later moving in with an older woman and her kids, a promising acting career in theater, TV and movies continually sidetracked by drugs and a lack of direction. “I was about as wild as they come,” he admits.
Johnson says he sensed the role in Vice might be his last chance. “I fought, calculated and manipulated to get it,” he says. The network knew his past history and resisted. But Don had reformed with the help of Patti, now 34, a two-time divorcee who also licked a drug and alcohol problem with the help of AA. “Patti is the dearest, most thoughtful person in the world,” he says. “That’s why I love her so much.”
The White House, of all places, is the subject as assistant Lori Byers drives her boss home around midnight to his rented ($2,000 a month), high-security, three-bedroom condo. Don, Patti and Jesse were guests three weeks ago at a formal morning reception. Later Don and Patti attended a state dinner for the prime minister of Denmark. But there was another motive behind the Reagans’ invitation. Nancy Reagan wanted to enlist Don for her national antidrug campaign (they’re still discussing the form it will take). “We were treated like royalty,” Don says proudly. “The President kept smiling and winking at Jesse [who’ll be 3 on December 7]. Right at the place they do the security check, Jesse kept looking at the Secret Service guys. When he saw one of their guns, he turned around and said loudly, ‘Daddy, did you bring your gun?’ I said, ‘Shuuush, shuuush.’ The Secret Service guys were getting nervous, but the President and First Lady fell in love with him. Jesse had a ball.”
So did Don and Patti. “I mean, let’s face it,” says Don. “There we were, all three of us, holding hands and playing one-two-three jump in the halls of the White House.” He recalls, “President Reagan asked me to autograph the Miami Wee TIME cover.” (The press spoiled the event a bit, implying that Johnson showed disrespect by not wearing socks to the reception. But Patti says he did wear a pair to dinner: “black Christian Diors.”) Patti’s most emotional memory of the visit was the after-dinner dancing. “Donny (as she calls him) and I looked around and into each other’s eyes and said, ‘I love you.’ We had come so far.”
Back in his condo, Johnson—for the moment—has only memories of Patti and Jesse. They are back in the three-bedroom, Studio City home they bought last March. (Patti videotaped each house she looked at and sent the tapes to Miami for Don’s approval.) She must be near L.A. to work out her own career. “Patti is probably going to do a series, which should pretty much wrap up our relationship,” says Don with a wry laugh. He knows that rumors persist they are splitting. “Ridiculous,” says Don. Patti sees their living 2,339 miles apart as “an investment in the time where the dividends are enormous.” She allows it’s hard to explain to people accustomed to “conventional relationships.” As for groupies, she’s not jealous. “Don loves me and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.”
Still, their long-distance love affair (nobody’s talking marriage) creates a strain. Don’s schedule permits him to spend only a few days at a time in L.A. “I miss Jesse so much,” he says. “Jesse just spent two months with me this summer. He and his nanny came. Of course, the separation damned near killed Patti.” The pace he keeps doubles the stress. Between rehearsals, filming and promotional and charity appearances, Johnson is planning an LP (singing and songwriting are early loves) that will grow into a long-form video and then an NBC special. “Just a little side thing I thought I’d throw together,” he says with a laugh.
But there are nights like this when his schedule catches up with him and Johnson begins to measure things lost. “There’s a lot more to me than a guy in a $3 T-shirt and Versace jacket,” he says, “though that part is very difficult to nurture these days. I like who I am. I miss myself.” Lately he’s found a new method for cadging a bit of peace: a customized, $125,000, twin 400-horsepower Scarab motorboat named My Vice, now docked next to his condo. “It can go about 80 miles per, maybe faster,” says Johnson. When things get too much, “I jump in, crank up the motor and scream out across the ocean. No phones. No obligations. It’s like…freedom.” Would he like to run away for good? “Naaah,” says Johnson, who knows all too well by now that his overriding ambition would in no time send him, speeding, back to shore.