NO MORE MR VICE GUY!
As he returns to TV as Rupert Grint’s boorish, narcissistic boss ‘I based him on Trump!’ , Miami Vice star Don Johnson insists that after the years of women, drugs and fast cars, it’s...
If ever there was a moment when Don Johnson realised he’d become a sex symbol, it was during the second season of Eighties hit show Miami Vice. He and co-star Philip Michael Thomas, as undercover cops Crockett and Tubbs, were filming a scene in New York surrounded by high-rise office blocks. ‘We were running down the street,’ says Johnson, ‘and something was falling all around us. When they said “Cut” I turned around and there were about 10,000 bras and panties covering the street. It turned out the ladies working in the offices were throwing their underwear at us. ‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘it ruined the shot.’ The show, which introduced pastelcoloured Versace jackets and designer stubble to the world, turned Johnson into the ‘sex idol of the universe’. Never one to shy away from fast living, he was soon an advert for Hollywood excess, from drink to drugs to women, though on today’s evidence you couldn’t possibly tell. Tanned, slim and immaculately turned out in blue shirt and jeans, he’s a picture of health. He turns 68 in December and frankly looks better than most men in their 40s.
He’s laid-back too – sober for years, yet happy to sit in the bar of the Los Angeles Peninsula hotel, where he nurses a sparkling water and puffs on an electronic cigarette, his only vice. It’s a far cry from the days when less salubrious company was itching to make his acquaintance.
‘Drug dealers were big fans of the show, which was kind of weird because I was playing the cop who was arresting them,’ says Johnson. ‘Once, in a nightclub one of the local drug dealers said to me, “I love you in that show. Let me give you some of this.” He pulled out this bag with about half a pound of cocaine in it and I said, “Thanks, but I’m not doing any drugs right now.” I was clean and sober and wasn’t about to do any of that.’
Such was his fame that even the President, Ronald Reagan, solicited his advice on drug policy. ‘I said, if you legalise drugs, it takes the fun and glamour and criminality out of it and then you can tax it. So it solves a lot of problems in one fell swoop.’ And how did he respond? ‘ He looked at me like I had four heads,’ laughs Johnson.
After advising the White House on matters of national health, it’s fitting that Johnson’s latest project is called Sick Note. The dark comedy features Harry Potter star Rupert Grint as habitual liar Daniel Glass, who is misdiagnosed with cancer by incompetent doctor Iain Glennis (Nick Frost), yet continues to fool everyone around him into believing he’s ill in order to elicit sympathy.
Johnson plays Daniel’s boss, Kenny West, who is boorish, potty-mouthed and totally lacking in self-awareness. ‘I based him on Donald Trump,’ says Johnson. ‘Kenny is such a narcissist, so I thought he’d be a good model. Kenny speaks like the President – anything can come out of his mouth at any moment.’
Johnson has known Trump since the late Eighties, when the actor raced powerboats and Trump was a sponsor. ‘He’s a very charming guy and he’s managed to become President of the United States, so he’s not stupid. He’s just…’ Johnson, a student of Buddhism, mulls over his choice of word: ‘Unconscious.’
Johnson readily admits that he’s been ‘enjoying a renaissance’ in his career of late. After his Golden Globe-winning turn in
Miami Vice, he had further hits such as Tin Cup (1996) and the TV cop series
Nash Bridges (1996-2001). After a slight career lull, his role as a racist vigilante in 2010’s Machete earned him rave reviews. This was followed by Quentin Tarantino’s Oscarwinning Django Unchained and the 2014 indie film Cold In July.
‘Leading men can be very one-dimensional,’ he says, ‘so it’s been fun getting to use the skills I was trained for by playing these outrageous characters.’
His life has been pretty outrageous, too. Johnson was just 12 when he lost his virginity to his 16-year-old babysitter. ‘I would say, “You girls took advantage of me,” ’ he jokes. ‘But it was a different time back then. People were getting married in their teens.’
His own parents, Wayne, a farmer, and Nell, a beautician, were themselves teenagers when Don was born, separating when he was 13. Johnson admits to being a ‘mischievous’ kid. He left home at 16 and worked to put himself through university. He moved to LA in 1969, where he lit up both stage and screen, most notably in 1973’s The Harrad Experiment starring Tippi Hedren as the teacher of a school where the pupils are encouraged to experiment sexually. The film was also
notorious for the fact that Johnson, then 22, and Hedren’s 14-year-old daughter, Melanie Griffith, started dating.
The relationship is shocking to read about today, but Griffith said she was ‘totally selfsufficient and responsible’ when she got together with Johnson, and scarcely anyone batted an eyelid at their relationship back in the permissive Seventies. The couple moved in together when she was 15, married in Vegas when she was 18 and divorced a year later.
In a recent interview, Hedren admitted that while Johnson ‘wasn’t a bad man… the relationship was out of place’ and said he had subsequently apologised to her. Of the couple getting together when Griffith was just a teenager, Johnson says: ‘Tippi wasn’t disappointed – she liked me.’
Johnson then dated actress Patti D’Arbanville (with whom he had a son, Jesse, now 34), before reuniting with Griffith in 1989. They had a daughter, Dakota Johnson, now the 28-year-old star of the Fifty Shades Of Grey movies, before divorcing again in 1996. The exes famously get along, with all the families and assorted children sharing birthdays and holidays. ‘Some people are just meant to be together, and I think that was true for Melanie and me, so we got married twice. I don’t believe that if you love someone, that love dies – it changes and becomes something else.’
Johnson has been married to third wife Kelley Phleger, a nursery school teacher, for 18 years and they have three children – Grace, 17, Jasper, 15, and Deacon, 11. ‘People don’t develop to the place where they can have long-lasting, mature relationships till they’re in their 30s, and for some of us,’ he adds, gesturing to himself, ‘it takes even longer than that.’
He’s honest, too, about his struggles with drink and drugs. ‘ When I was a young man in Hollywood, drugs, alcohol and partying were everywhere and it was hard to escape. It doesn’t become a problem immediately, it takes time, and it led to some poor choices.’
By the late Noughties, Johnson had got shot of everything in his life that was extraneous, selling off his 20 cars and his ranch in Colorado (‘the things that once defined Don Johnson’). A few years later, he won a $19 million settlement for a share of the profits from Nash Bridges, which he had conceived with the writer Hunter S Thompson.
Nowadays, his only concession to fast living is a Tesla car. Self-possessed and happy in his own skin, he has ridden the Hollywood rollercoaster and come out the other side. He’s much in demand these days with projects including the movie Book Club – a comedy starring Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton, whose lives are changed when they start reading Fifty Shades Of Grey. Is he ever going to watch the whips-and-paddles blockbuster that turned his daughter into a star?
‘No,’ he says unequivocally. ‘I mean, there are some images as a father that you just e don’t need in your head.’ ‘Sick Note’ is on Sky 1 from November 7, 10pm
‘Drugs, alcohol and partying were everywhere. It was hard to escape and it led to some poor choices’
Don Johnson’s ex-wife Melanie Griffith with their daughter, Dakota Johnson
Johnson with Rupert Grint in
Johnson in his Miami Vice heyday in the mid-Eighties Sick Note. Right: with Melanie Griffith in 1973