How ‘Miami Vice’ changed TV

Cruising: Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas pull up to the Miami Marina in July 1985 to publicize the Miami-New York Offshore Challenge race.
Cruising: Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas pull up to the Miami Marina in July 1985 to publicize the Miami-New York Offshore Challenge race. AP

This story was first published in 2014 for the 30th anniversary of the premiere of “Miami Vice.”

Miami Vice was a game-changer when it debuted in 1984, a never-before-seen mash-up of pop music, rock stars and moviemaking techniques applied for the first time to the small screen.

Three decades later, the changes to TV culture that Vice ushered in are everywhere. Just take a look at the cinematic quality of current television shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, CBS’ rebooted Hawaii Five-O and FX’s horror anthology, American Horror Story.

Or listen to their soundtracks. TV’s employment of pop-music-as-cultural-touchstone can trace its roots back to Vice’s game-changing use of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, throbbing and crashing as Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett character cruised glistening Biscayne Boulevard in a black Ferrarri Daytona Spyder.

The show that depicted Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as undercover Metro-Dade police detectives battling drug cartels in a city with an international reputation as a cocaine capital “had an amazing imprint on a global culture,” said Paul Lazarus, professor of motion pictures and video at the University of Miami School of Communication.

Miami Vice memorialized a moment in culture,” he said. “You always try to create something in the public zeitgeist, [but] its timing was serendipitous.”


Without the show’s trailblazing mix of stars, cutting-edge cinematography and music by ’80s sensations like Dire Straits, Tina Turner and Peter Gabriel, The Sopranos might not have used Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ for its 2007 HBO finale. American Horror Story: Coven might not have cast singer Stevie Nicks in a role as an exaggerated version of her witchy woman persona earlier this year.

Among the musical stars walking through the pastel scenery of five seasons of Vice: Miles Davis, Glenn Frey, Gene Simmons, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Little Richard, Leonard Cohen, Sheena Easton and Collins, who all had featured guest roles. Even Barbra Streisand — dating Johnson at the time — had an unbilled cameo as a pedestrian in a fourth- season episode in 1988.


A much-repeated story pegged the origin of the show on two words — “MTV cops” — jotted onto a napkin by then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff.

Untrue, said Anthony Yerkovich, the show’s creator. “That’s utter horse----, an apocryphal bit of revisionist self-promotion.”

Reality was much more intriguing, he said in an interview this month. The vision of a sexy, edgy, full-throttle Miami started with a 1982 article he read in the Wall Street Journal that contained an astounding bit of information: A full 20 percent of all unreported income in the United States came from Miami-Dade County.

Yerkovich, who wrote the pilot episode, a two-hour NBC movie that aired 12 days before the series started on Sept.28, said he thought “that must be a misprint.”

He did the math. “That means one-half of 1percent of the nation’s population is responsible for 20 percent of the under-the-table money. That is fascinating. Statistically, that’s a 40-to-1 disparity. Any area that generates 40 times more unreported cash than the rest of the country is worth writing about.”

Federal forfeiture laws allowing the government to confiscate property used in crimes offered him the opening he needed to write about a pair of cops with access to Ferraris, cigarette boats, Versace suits, Hugo Boss shoes and Rolex watches. “And whatever other toys they needed to pass as high- level players in Miami criminal circles,” he said.

The final factor? MTV. “I wanted to take the story I was visualizing and set it to music.”


Jan Hammer, a Czech composer and keyboardist, was the key, providing original, mood-setting electronic scores for the first four seasons. That included the rhythmic theme song that went to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1985.

Michael Mann, the show’s executive producer — who incorporated elements from his neo-noir film directing debut, Thief (1981), into Vice’s cinematography — didn’t tell Hammer what to write. But the schedule was tight: Hammer had three or four days to write about 30 minutes’ worth of music, play it, record it and send it from his New York studio to Los Angeles by each Monday morning.

Mann, who also directed the darker $135million Miami Vice feature film in 2006 with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as grittier versions of Crockett and Tubbs, let the music play a central role more like in movies than TV of that era, said Hammer, now 66. “None of that was attempted on TV before … where the music was carrying the story so much more than in usual TV projects. Mann let that grow out of our collaboration.”

Former Miami Herald TV critic Steve Sonsky, who scored a three-line role as a bartender on a fourth-season episode called Love at First Sight, said NBC pumped money into the show to create the look and feel Mann wanted: a Deco-infused image, with slick streets, waterfront mansions and trend-setting music.

“This was the first TV series to pay attention, and devote extreme time and money, to two things: cinematography and music. Networks didn’t want to spend that kind of money. The budget was $50,000 to get the rights to original music for each episode. That was an extraordinary sum. The watered-down streets made the visuals pop,” Sonsky said.

But according to Don Johnson, whose career skyrocketed when the show became a hit, even the major players didn’t realize at the time that they were altering the future of the format.

“We all came from independent features … always scrambling to stretch a dollar. Everyone always talks about how at the time how we were revolutionizing television. But I remember how Michael [Mann] said, ‘We’re not revolutionizing TV, we’re contemporizing it.’ We were just taking our skills from independent filmmaking where you know, sometimes, you wouldn’t have to bother getting a permit. You would just jump out of the car somewhere with your camera and get it done,” Johnson said in an interview.

Actors like Michael Talbott, who played Detective Stanley Switek, felt things change when Vice’s ratings climbed during summer reruns of the first season.

“That show set the bar so high for other TV shows with its music and color and cinematography. They spent roughly about $1million an episode and it was certainly on the screen,” Talbott said from his home in New Mexico.


The gritty crime drama drenched in sherbet colors made stars of Johnson and Thomas, but also boosted the careers of then bit-players like Julia Roberts, Helena Bonham Carter, Bruce Willis, Laurence Fishburne, Jimmy Smits, Liam Neeson and Ben Stiller.

It changed the landscape of Miami with its TV-filtered view of the city and even altered the lives of the fans.

Miami Vice changed my life,” said Miami-Dade Police public information officer Roy Rutland, 43, who became technical advisor on the 2006 movie. “I spent my career in narcotics, working undercover, and I think the reason I worked narcotics was Miami Vice in the ’80s. As a kid I loved it so much it drew me to working undercover, and it came full circle.”

Freelance news photographer Raúl de Molina turned paparazzo when he realized British tabloids were paying up to $40,000 for photo spreads of Johnson and Vice shoots.

“British tabloids started going around with me and would do stories on Prince Charles in Palm Beach and Princess Diana — but the bread and butter was Miami Vice in Miami,” said de Molina, now an Emmy-winning co-host of Univision’s entertainment news show, El Gordo y la Flaca.

“The big thing about Miami Vice that differentiated it is that it was identified with a specific police agency,” said Sgt. Robert Hoelscher, a now-retired Miami-Dade Police Department officer who served as the TV show’s on-set technical advisor. “Unlike Hill Street Blues, where there was no specific agency, here, this is going to be Miami vice and Metro-Dade and every piece of equipment was ours so it had to conform with the rules and standard operating procedures we went by then.”

As Miami saw itself reflected in a more glamorous way on the small screen, it began to change to fit the new image, added Yerkovich, who also wrote three years of Hill Street Blues.

“I think Vice showed Miami an idealized version of itself, and the city in turn commenced mimicking the reflection of itself on the TV screen. Even the dealers started dressing better,” Yerkovich said, laughing.

The show served as an invaluable advertisement for the city. “Every Friday night, from 9 to 10, you couldn’t buy 47 minutes of advertising to promote Miami Beach. You couldn’t afford it,” said Lori Wyman, whose career as a casting director in Miami grew out of her work putting actors on Vice. “And if you could afford it you wouldn’t get people from all over the world to watch 47 minutes of an advertisement for South Beach. Instead, you had this exciting TV show. I don’t think we’ll have anything like that again.”

The wardrobe alone made the show a trend-setter, featuring designers like Gianni Versace, Mitsuhiro and Matsuda for the lead characters’ $600 linen pants or double-breasted jackets.

“The fashion-forward use of colors, things that you saw on fashion shows, you didn’t typically see on TV,” Sonsky said. “A lot of people contributed to that — wardrobe people, costume designers and cinematographers. The quick cuts and the way they made the city look, the stubble everyone’s wearing now. That’s the most extraordinary, ongoing tale of that show and its legacy, and the power of TV.”

In the third season, designer Milena Canonero revamped the series with dark greens and blues. The gloomy look seemed to portend a downward trend for the show with a new time slot opposite CBS’ Dallas on Fridays. “They got cocky, and the scripts got uneven,” Sonsky said.

By the fifth season, it was clear Miami Vice was over.

Thirty years later, Johnson’s still working at 64, most recently as Cameron Diaz’s father in the 2014 film The Other Woman. Yerkovich is writing feature scripts and running his Santa Monica restaurant, Buffalo Club. Edward James Olmos, the only actor to win an Emmy for his acting on Vice, as dour Lt. Castillo, has a voice role in the 2015 animated feature, El Americano: The Movie.

Talbott, 59, mostly retired from acting now, said the show really had just one main character.

“Miami was the star of that show. It wasn’t any one person or all the rock stars or guest stars,” he said. “We never filmed in the rain because Miami was the star and what you are promoting is the sunshine and the beach.”

Miami Herald staff writer Madeleine Marr contributed to this report. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

Related stories from Miami Herald