Possessing a face that "could have prevented World War II," Don Johnson brought his small-town naivete to Hollywood, and amid the anything-goes L.A. party scene of the early 1970s, prospered socially, if not professionally. The fair-haired Midwesterner had toiled largely unrecognized for 15 years on stage, TV and film, and was what NBC executives referred to as a "six-time loser", meaning he'd made six failed pilots, when he landed the role of Sonny Crockett in Michael Mann's post-modern, trendy cop drama…
Possessing a face that "could have prevented World War II," Don Johnson brought his small-town naivete to Hollywood, and amid the anything-goes L.A. party scene of the early 1970s, prospered socially, if not professionally. The fair-haired Midwesterner had toiled largely unrecognized for 15 years on stage, TV and film, and was what NBC executives referred to as a "six-time loser", meaning he'd made six failed pilots, when he landed the role of Sonny Crockett in Michael Mann's post-modern, trendy cop drama "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89), establishing himself as a TV icon for the 80s. Johnson's gravelly voice, 5 o'clock shadow, Armani wardrobe and quietly anguished machismo made him the more charismatic half of the pastel-clad detective duo.
The Missouri native began acting and singing in high school and, after two years at the University of Kansas, joined San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre where he caught the eye of Sal Mineo, who cast him in his first major role in the 1969 Los Angeles stage production of "Fortune in Men's Eyes".
Johnson then worked almost exclusively in TV until "Miami Vice", beginning with the ABC movie "Law of the Land" (1976) and including the cancer drama "First, You Cry" (NBC, 1978), the amazingly dull "Ski Lift to Death" (CBS, 1978), the miniseries "Beulah Land" (NBC, 1980) and "Elvis and the Beauty Queen" .before teaming with Phillip Michael Thomas for their five-year run as tough, glamorous and very well-dressed "Miami Vice" cops. The series became a cultural phenomenon, aided by superb MTV-style.cinematography, Jan Hammer's rock score and Johnson's sexy, humorous performance. Celebrities clamoured for cameo roles, and hip twentysomethings stayed home on Friday nights to check out the show. During the run, he also put in a very impressive performance as a menacing drifter in the TV remake of "The Long, Hot Summer" (NBC, 1985) and cut two albums, "Heartbeat" (1986) and "Let It Roll" (1988).
Inevitably, the 80s and "Miami Vice" would come to an end, and Johnson's bid for feature stardom would fall far short of the one made by fellow TV icon Bruce Willis. He made two movies with wife Melanie Griffith, "Paradise" (1991) and the remake of "Born Yesterday" (1993), but neither took off despite good performances. Johnson finally scored as second banana to Kevin Costner in Ron Shelton's "Tin Cup" (1996), giving notice in his part as a narcissistic golf pro that his future in features just might lie in supporting roles. He also demonstrated on-screen chemistry with future co-star Cheech Marin in their first pairing.
Johnson served as an executive producer for the thriller "In the Company of Darkness" (CBS, 1993) and the short-lived series "The Marshall" (ABC, 1995), for which he directed some episodes, before helping to develop the police drama "Nash Bridges", his highly anticipated return to series TV, which he also executive produced. Perhaps the clothes weren't quite as flashy as on "Miami Vice" (pink was out), but the premise was the same, as was the familiar 10 PM time slot on Friday night. With Marin as his politically correct sidekick, the charming, unflappably cool Bridges has consistently finished a strong second to ABC's "20/20" in the time slot, rewarding the network's confidence. Though the reception for "Goodbye Lover" (1998) was lukewarm at Cannes, Variety gave him a big boost, calling it "enjoyable as long as Don Johnson is in it."
For a man who seemingly gets better looking with age, feature stardom as a handsome, wry character player may loom in the future.