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Before they were stars: 'Miami Vice' was breeding ground for major talent

Miami Vice: Major talent emerged from the iconic cop show.
Miami Vice: Major talent emerged from the iconic cop show.

Miami Vice not only made Don Johnson a major international star but also helped launch the careers of dozens of actors and actresses. Blink and you might miss the fresh-faced bit players who are now mega-famous box office draws.

Johnson looks back with pride about helping to hire Julia Roberts to play a gun moll (yes!) in season four.

“I cast her because she had the most beautiful pair of lips I’d ever seen,” recalls Johnson of the two-part episode he directed, in which his character, Sonny Crockett, has amnesia. “I kept the camera zeroed in on her face the whole time.”

As for a certain Die Hard star who played an arms smuggler in season one: Johnson had met Bruce Willis from “back in the day” hanging out in New York City’s ’80s hotspot Cafe Central, where Willis bartended.

Johnson recalls another funny chap who appeared on the first episode after the pilot: “Ed O’Neill played an FBI guy, then got Married with Children soon after,” says Johnson, who is happy for all his colleagues’ success. “I never take ownership of those things. We are all blessed to be doing what we do.”

Hats off to the show’s main casting director, Bonnie Timmermann, who had a special gift for spotting talent.

“We’d talk all the time. I’d give her suggestions,” remembers Johnson, “but Bonnie in no small part contributed to the success of the show.”

Someone else who gets credit for spotting star potential is Lori Wyman, who still heads up her casting agency in North Miami Beach. She met her now husband, actor Marc Macaulay (Wild Things), on the set.

Macaulay ended up playing myriad roles, including that of stuntman, and had a blast hanging with the then nobodies: “I lost a role on an episode to an unknown guy named Steve Buscemi,” he recalls, laughing. “I worked with Bill Paxton, who had just done Aliens. One of the best people in the business. He started out doing props with his father on sets in L.A. Super nice and really grateful to have a job.”

Also playing any role you could think of was regular extra Michael Dean Walker, who lives in Hollywood.

“I was thin and tall and [producers] liked that I could fit in to almost every costume,” says Walker. “I was always in the background: cop, waiter, football players, a million things.”

The show’s early morning calls and long hours weren’t much of a thrill until a bonafide superstar came on set.

“I was like, ‘This is stupid. Why is everyone working so hard?’ Then one day Phil Collins literally walked in front of me on the set [in 1985]. He was not only famous for his solo career by this point but had the Vice theme song. That’s when I started realizing what a cool, big show it was.”

MADELEINE MARR

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