Best known for his starring role as Det. Sonny Crockett on the hugely successful TV series Miami Vice (1984), Don Johnson is one of the stars who really defined the 1980s. As James “Sonny” Crockett he went toe-to-toe with drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, assassins, illegal arms-dealers and crooked cops on a weekly basis from 1984 to 1989, appearing in a grand total of 110 episodes. The show, which was executive-produced by four time Oscar-nominated director, producer and writer Michael Mann, paired Johnson with the equally cool Philip Michael Thomas as Det. Ricardo Tubbs and the calm and stoic presence of Edward James Olmos as Lt. Martin Castillo. It revolutionized television with its modern fashion, pop music, unique style and use of real locations. Johnson typically wore $1000 Armani, Versace and Hugo Boss suits over pastel cotton T-shirts, drove a Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona (later a Ferrari Testarossa) and lived on an Endeavour 42-foot sailboat named “St. Vitus’ Dance” with his pet alligator Elvis. He also had full use of an offshore powerboat. Still, “Miami Vice” had not only style but substance, and his portrayal of the Vietnam veteran turned vice detective turned Sonny Crockett into the world’s favorite cop. For his work on “Miami Vice” Johnson won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series in 1986, and was nominated in the same category a year later. He also picked up an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1985.
Johnson was born in Flat Creek, Missouri, the son Eva Lea (Wilson), a beautician, and Freddie Wayne Johnson, a farmer. As a kid, he wanted to become a professional bowler. Later, after a few brushes with the law at a young age, he discovered acting. After working on the stage for a while he ventured into films and television, but was not able to break into stardom despite, among other things, starring in the sci-fi cult classic A Boy and His Dog (1975).
Johnson starred in four failed TV pilots before landing his career-high role on “Miami Vice”, which propelled him to superstardom. He directed four highly praised episodes of the show. He balanced his work on the series by appearing in a praised TV-movie adaption of the William Faulkner novel The Long Hot Summer (1985) and the feature Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) with Susan Sarandon. After the series ended he focused solely on his film career. Although movies like Dead Bang (1989), The Hot Spot (1990) and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) did not fare well with the critics, quite a few of them have obtained a considerable cult following, with fans praising them as all being quality contributions to their genre. His film work has given Johnson the opportunity to work with legendary filmmakers like John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Dennis Hopper.
After working steadily, Johnson returned to TV in 1996 with the cop show Nash Bridges (1996). The show, which Johnson created and produced, did very well. It co-starred Cheech Marin and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe. Johnson played the title role, a captain in the San Francisco PD’s Special Investigations Unit. He was again paired with a flashy vehicle, this time an electric-yellow 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible. After “Nash Bridges” went off the air Johnson kept a low profile, but continued to appear in films and on television. He starred in the failed WB courtroom drama Just Legal (2005), which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and traveled to Europe to make the Norwegian screwball comedy Lange flate ballær II (2008) and the Italian films Bastardi (2008) and Torno a vivere da solo (2008). As a supporting actor, he’s been seen in mainstream films such as Machete (2010), Django Unchained (2012) and Knives Out (2019).
Johnson had two pre-fame marriages that were annulled within a matter of days. In the early 1970s, he lived with rock groupie Pamela Des Barres. In 1972, Tippi Hedren, his co-star in The Harrad Experiment (1973), allowed him to date her daughter Melanie Griffith despite the fact that she was only 14 and he was 22; the relationship culminated in a six-month marriage during 1976. From 1981 to 1985, he lived with actress Patti D’Arbanville and they had one son together. After short-lived liaisons with Cybill Shepherd, Barbra Streisand, and a barely legal Uma Thurman, he remarried Griffith in 1989. The couple divorced again in 1996, after she left him for Antonio Banderas. Johnson was engaged to “Nash Bridges” co-star O’Keefe, but broke it off before they made it to the altar. Since 1999 he’s been married to former debutante Kelley Phleger, with whom he has three children.
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