The heat was on: Don Johnson looks back on ‘Miami Vice’

Thirty years later, Don Johnson still gets sentimental talking about his role as Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice. Calling it “a wild ride,” the 64-year-old actor looks back upon his time here (1984-89) so fondly that he said he would even consider doing an updated version of the show, 21st century style.

We talked to Johnson by phone from the California home he shares with his wife, Kelley Phleger, and their three young children.

What was the situation like when you were shooting in the 1980s?

South Beach wasn’t in the lexicon. It was south Miami Beach when we first arrived. I could go on telling stories for days about the [experience]. I mean, you could shoot off a cannon, maybe hit a blue heron. It was deserted! I was like going, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. I mean, I still have a love for Miami. It’s just a part of me. I’m so grateful for my time there. I went back and shot a Nike commercial with LeBron James not too long ago. And people are still very kind and generous. At restaurants I can barely pay a bill. It’s actually a symbiotic love affair.

Do you stay in touch with your costar Philip Michael Thomas?

He’s a dear, dear friend. We used to talk fairly frequently. I worked 14-16 hours a day with this man for five years, and we never had one argument, not one disagreement. We had each other’s back. We protected each other. You could feel the chemistry and the brotherhood, and I think ultimately in a television series if the audience connects emotionally with the people it almost doesn’t matter what the a, b, or c story is. You just want to be with those people. People got a fresh look at something different. It was like, wow, I haven’t seen anything like this before, the fashion and the music is like it is in feature films. You can’t take that away. But in order for Miami Vice to stay relevant the audience has to connect. At the heart of the show is the sense of humor and the irony and the chemistry, and that’s what I believe was so powerful.

So let’s talk fashion. That was a big player.

Well, whenever I would have to go back to work, usually in late July — I say this with all the love in my heart — it was like being sentenced to Cambodia. The heat was unbearable. I knew I would be working in extreme conditions for the next three months, and by the time it got to October you were so beat up. And my clothes: I had to wear a jacket, I had to wear a gun, a shoulder holster. It’s 100 degrees out there with 98 percent humidity. How can I do this? So I just started rolling up the sleeves, losing pieces of clothing — socks, belts — wearing T-shirts. Lo and behold, soon I’m wearing Versace, Armani, Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler, all these incredible designers.

How else did the Miami weather play into the show?

Everyone always talks about the look of Miami Vice. I constantly marvel at it too. And not to sound too sort of esoteric here, but the universe hands you challenges (though I prefer to see them as opportunities). We would shoot in the shade whenever we could, then we would light the shade, and that’s what gave the show its signature look. It was form following function.

What was one of your greatest memories?

I remember the very first day of the pilot, the very first scene. We shot in this walk-up retirement apartment on Ocean Drive. There was a hole right in the middle of the floor on the second floor. You could see all the way through. We’re talking eight or nine inches in diameter. How the hole got there I don’t know, I don’t want to know. Years later, Gianni Versace, God rest his soul, and I got to be pretty good friends. I was visiting Miami one time, and I got an invitation to come over to see his new place and have lunch. I walk in the door, to the garden, and there’s something really strangely familiar, which isn’t unusual since we shot in almost every building in Miami Beach. I went, ‘Oh my God. This is the place where we shot the first episode.’ It was spectacular. But how is the irony of that? It was the Versace Mansion.

You shot a video for your 1986 song Gotta Get Away on Espanola Way. Remember that?

Oh God, yes. I took my blood pressure afterward, and it was 180 over 120, or something like that, and I was fit! We had thousands of extras and only had one night. It was insane what was involved: choreography, steadycams, dream sequences. It was ambitious, maybe a little too ambitious. We ended up getting the last shot as the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon.

Does it feel as if 30 years have passed?

You know something? My wife always says, ‘My God. You have lived such a large life,’ and I know what she means by that. I kind of feel like no time has passed, yet chronologically I know it has. I don’t feel any different. I have a good energy and great health. I’ve kind of got a kind of magical thing going on here.

So I hear you’re working on a new show called Score set in Miami.

Yes, it’s about college football, and I play this outrageous coach that breaks all the recruiting rules. We show off Miami in all its ’80s glory — pre-social media, pre-cellphones, pre-PC, pre-everything! It was also the beginning of big time, big money college football. I have every intention of doing it; I finished cowriting the pilot. But you know the way the film business is now you have to go where you get the best incentives. It’s not the business we once knew. It’s tight. So I’m hoping when we get ready to go into production we’ll do it down there, and the film commission will help us out. For old time’s sake. Nothing would please me more.

And what about Sonny Crockett. Is he totally retired?

You know, perhaps there are some new episodes of Miami Vice that could come along. A reboot. I have talked to some big-time directors who would be interested in doing it. I’ve got a couple ideas of how you could do it in a seamless, spectacular way. I would re-create my role as Sonny as he is in the 21st century. It could be fun as hell.


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