June 17, 1985 12:00 PM

William Faulkner would have loved it. The temperature was 104 in the shade, people were worried about the fire ants, nobody was acting too jolly, and it was all because of him. All these Yankees (and a few Confederates) were making a miniseries. Now when Faulkner tucked it in around ’62, they hadn’t yet invented the miniseries. But he was once described as America’s own backwoods Balzac, and his lush prose about Southern livin’ and lovin’ was made to be hyped and strung out on the small screen.

This fall a miniseries version of The Long Hot Summer, based on three of his works and filmed in Louisiana and Texas, hits NBC. It stars Don Johnson from Miami Vice. Recently, relaxing between scenes on location in his recreational vehicle, while a John Denver song played on the radio, he was saying, “It’s been real glamorous—14 hours a day in the swamp. It’s been the long, hot mosquito summer.”

Because of the heat and those dive-bombing skeeters, Johnson, like the other stars, was spending much of his time in his RV, sometimes with son Jesse, 2½, perched on his lap. Occasionally Johnson’s personal assistant, Merry Williams, stopped by with a telephone message, while Johnson’s driver, Sammy Conigliaro, who doubles as his personal cook, did the dinner dishes. Johnson has been working on the miniseries since April, and his life is just dandy. “I feel just right,” he says. “Life is good. It’s a new high, knowing that I’ll be working next year. You become an actor by being a shadow. I’ve been the shadow. Now I’ll be the light.”

At the same time, he’s feeling a little trapped. “Fame is irreversible,” he says. “I can’t take a walk. The fans look like they’re going to devour me. I spend most of my time in these things.” (He waves at the walls of his RV.) Indeed, clusters of little Cajun girls—and their families—clotted everywhere to see him around the set in Thibodaux, La. To escape he headed into New Orleans to pass time with an old pal, singer Jimmy Buffett.

Visits from his bright-eyed, blond son also help Johnson relax. Despite his wild past—living with Melanie Griffith when he was 22 and she was 14, bouts with drugs and alcohol—he oozes domesticity in the presence of his tot. Sitting at a table strewn with Jesse’s drawings Johnson says, “He’s my pal. He comes out from California and gypsies around with Daddy. He’s like me—he talks with his hands and loves pasta. On the set everyone falls in love with him. He loves to sing and dance, and he’s got more energy than 10 kids ought to have. His mother and I did a hell of a job—and it was fun doing it.”

Johnson denies published reports that he and Jesse’s mother, actress Patti D’Arbanville, have split. Patti also scoffs at the rumor: “It’s untrue. We’re very much in love and very much together.” She cites the fact that they just bought a Studio City, Calif. house that Patti is busy decorating. Of their separation while Johnson is on location, she says, “I took a lover, not a prisoner.”

Johnson’s Long Hot Summer co-star is Cybill (Moonlighting) Shepherd. Talking about her character, the philandering wife Eula Varner, Shepherd says, “She’s a real flirt—flirting is her main way of relating to people.” Cybill is obviously right for the part too, since she says, “I’m definitely good at flirting.”

Like Johnson, Shepherd has a child, daughter Clementine Ford, 5, visiting on location in her quarters at a plantation, Oak Alley, near Thibodaux. “I didn’t want to miss Mother’s Day with my baby!” she exclaims. Otherwise, Shepherd says she’s been keeping herself entertained by “eating crawfish, racewalking and riding the levee on my mountain bike.”

This miniseries, whose cast includes Ava Gardner, Jason Robards and Judith (The Woman in Red) Ivey, is a remake of the 1958 film that featured the young Paul Newman, his wife, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Lee Remick. But that movie was made when married folks still had to sleep in twin beds on the screen. This remake has Johnson and Ivey cuddling right out on the banks of the Mississippi. Johnson claims with that butter-melting smile of his that this part of the role, anyway, is no hardship—no matter how many mud bugs might pinch his fanny. “I don’t mind having love scenes on the banks of the Mississippi,” he jokes. “In fact I’ve been practicing in my spare time.”

Rita Mae (Rubyfruit Jungle) Brown wrote the script using the 1958 screenplay and material from the original sources (Faulkner’s Barn Burning, The Hamlet and Spotted Horses). Dennis Turner also worked on the script, and their efforts, not incidentally, yielded a part just right for Don Johnson: the antihero, studly Ben Quick. Says Johnson, “He walks into the room, and a jar falls off the shelf. He causes things to happen because of his energy. He’s a roadie right off a rock ‘n’ roll band—well traveled, but he’s never gone first class.” He appears one day in a Southern town ruled by Will Varner (Robards), an old codger always nagging his sensitive daughter (Ivey) to make some grandbabies. Robards also has a lazy son (Bill Russ) who isn’t any better at making babies with his bride(Shepherd).

Nobody on location was owning up to sitting in their rooms feverishly checking the late night TV schedule to see if the original Long Hot Summer was on. Johnson, for one, says he feels no pressure about living up to his predecessor: “You can’t compare Frederic March’s Willy Loman to Dustin Hoffman’s. I don’t try to compare one to the other. It’s unfair.”

After 15 years Johnson believes he deserves his current success: “I clawed my way to it.” Now a household face—the reason thousands of men are topping T-shirts with linen blazers and saving their pennies for Italian fashions—he leans back and says, “I’m continually under the gun. I have to finish this before I go directly back to Miami Vice.” When is his next scheduled vacation? Johnson turns to his assistant, Williams, who shrugs. “Sometime in the year 2000,” Johnson says with a bittersweet laugh.

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