The inside story Miami: I got to star on Vice

My palms are sweating. My throat is dry. My mind is racing -- yet empty. Lines? What lines? I have been going over and over my measly three lines for the entire six hours I've been waiting for them to get to my scene, and now Don Johnson, who is directing this episode of Miami Vice, is finally telling me to take my place on the set and run through my lines with Philip Michael Thomas. Lines? What lines? They're gone.

"Rehearsal, " someone barks. "Just take your time, " says Thomas. He's not saying that to relax me -- those are his lines. My cue.

They say public speaking is the most common phobia in America. There are only a handful of people on the set at this moment, but I know that eventually these three lines will be heard by about 25 million people.

The sum total of my acting experience to this point? One agonizing line I flubbed playing a mouse in my second-grade class production of Alice in Wonderland, which I did only because Mrs. Greene insisted everyone be in it. And one line as a journalist in a high school production of Anything Goes, which I joined because a lot of cute girls were in the show, none of whom would have anything to do with me.

Nevertheless, tonight I make my television acting debut in, no less, one of the all-time sleaziest of a long list of sleazy, murky, corpse-filled, scum-ridden, crime- infested Miami Vice episodes. About 40 minutes into the 9 o'clock show, (Channels 7, 5 and 20 locally), I play a bartender who fingers the murderer (three lines, 24 seconds on screen, shot from my worst angle, dammit) in an episode about a man- hating psychopathic serial killer who, um, cuts off the victims' genitalia. Yeah. Wholesome viewing fun for the entire family.

I swear, Mrs. Greene, I only did it because I thought it would make an interesting story. But it ain't bad as cocktail chatter, either.

It is a normal day, a Thursday like most others -- until the phone rings.

It is Lori Wyman from the Vice casting office in Miami Beach. "You'll report to work at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Club Nu, 22nd Street off of Collins, " she says. "Monday afternoon you come here to get your script and then to wardrobe to be fitted."

I don't know what she was talking about.

"Didn't Don call you?" she says.

No, Don hadn't called me, I says.

"You really don't know, " she says. I feel like I'm in a spy movie.

Several years ago, it seems, I had mentioned to Don Johnson during an interview that it would be interesting to see what it was like to actually act in a television show. It might make a fun story, I had said, having just read a similar piece, and if he ever came across a role that had just a line or two, and if the shoe (size 11) fit . . .

He had remembered. In this episode he is directing there is this small role for a bartender in a scene with Tubbs, and so he has called Dick Brams, the show's producer in Miami, who has responded with a ringing endorsement: "Sonsky? Sure. What the hell. How can it hurt?" (In other words, they probably figure I can't screw up three lines that badly, and at least they'll get some ink.)

At the casting office I get my script, sign a lot of forms and am told that my agent will have to talk to them about billing if I want my name to appear in the on-screen credits. The only agent I have is Frank Wolf from State Farm. I'm not optimistic.

I note various casting kinds of things, like a photographic contact sheet on someone's desk with numerous provocative poses of a luscious woman wearing a flesh-colored Spandex body stocking. And less. Attached is a note: "Don would like this blond." Well, suuuure. Who wouldn't?

I also learn that Screen Actors Guild regulations state I have to take Universal Studios' money -- which makes me, as a reporter actually doing a story, uncomfortable -- for my one-day shoot as what the call sheet calls "Principal Character No. 23 -- Bartender." The pay is $379 for the day, minus Social Security and taxes, which comes to $312 take-home; I give this to charity, assuaging my sense of journalistic integrity.

The integrity of my wallet, however, would have been severely damaged had I been required to cough up the eight hundred dollars it costs to join SAG -- usually required of a TV actor. But, as someone who is likely never to act again, I am able to get a waiver.

I also need a special fitting. As I try things on in the cramped wardrobe department, amid racks of clothes marked with peculiarly Vice signs like "Hooker Day Wear, " it becomes apparent that none of the green and purple bartenders' suits wardrobe stocked are going to come close to fitting me. I'm 6-3. They are 5-9.

"You're the tallest actor we've had in here since the basketball episode, " marvels one woman in wardrobe. They had to fit Bill Russell (6-9) and Bernard King (6-6) for that one. "We usually don't get them so tall -- for obvious reasons." In time- honored showbiz fashion, no one is supposed to be taller than the leading men, and Johnson and Thomas are both about 5-11.

They call the wardrobe master to consider alternatives -- tailoring, amputation, liposuction, who knows -- and eventually they decide to buy some new 42-long jackets and 35- inch-sleeve white shirts. They do have one old shirt that fits -- but it has this rather conspicuous hole over the right breast. "Oh -- it's been shot, " they explain. "Probably once worn by a bad guy."

I wear my own pleated black pants and black shoes on the show -- I am warned not to wear my cordovan loafers. They'll shoot brown, I am told, and that falls into the verboten earth- tone category. In season one, someone says, when the Vice pastel mania was at fever pitch, they were afraid even to wear anything red around the office. That was the year then-producer John Nicolella painted the Vice spaces in the parking lot hot pink.

I arrive at the Club Nu shoot -- 22nd Street is blocked off, the entire block filled with Vice trailers and trucks -- the following Tuesday at 5 p.m., the time stated on the call sheet for "makeup." Except no one makes me up. I am extremely disappointed. I keep looking for the makeup people. Assistant director types keep telling me not to worry. I worry.

As a "principal character" (i.e., with lines), I have my own "honeywagon, " as they call it. This is an air-conditioned trailer the size of a small walk-in closet, but since many actors come from New York, it's larger than most of their apartments. It has a padded gray vinyl bench to lie down on (if you're 5-11 or less), a pillow, a sink, a towel dispenser, a mirror, and a toilet with blue water. You may think this is for sanitary reasons, but my theory is it's to prevent the water from ever taking on un-Vice-like earth tone colors.

Another wardrobe mistress brings in my costume. She thinks Johnson has achieved perfect casting. "Hey -- you look just like a bartender. Are you one?" she says. "Thanks, " I say, "but no." "Yeah -- little too tall, " she says.

The geniuses in wardrobe have found the perfect bartender's jacket for Vice -- black, but with these enormous fuchsia satin sleeves and lapels. Great colors for the camera, but it makes me look like some kind of pansy toreador.

Worse, this nutty string tie with sequins goes with it, with a medallion-like fuchsia orb in the center. I decide to unbutton my collar and wear the tie loose -- my own fashion statement.

On the set, the club is bathed in dry-ice smoke and neon and filled with gorgeous young women who are extras -- "background, " the assistant director calls them, as in "Background, over here!"

But for me, it is pretty much the "hurry-up-and-wait" routine. My scene is hours away. They set up and shoot three others first. Most involve Crockett, so Johnson has to both set up and act in those scenes.

Crockett is trying to find the killer, who, Vice has discovered, gets her victims from a video dating service. So Crockett has made his own date video and is acting as bait, meeting with different suspects. As the Background silently mime eating and talking in the Nu restaurant (restaurant noise is mixed in during post-production), Crockett does his dialogue with a suspect.

Five o'clock. Six o'clock. Seven o'clock. Eight o'clock. Nine o'clock. Ten o'clock. I pass the time in my honeywagon, going over my three lines another million times or so, or talking to other, um, actors. Or crew. Some wear T-shirts with a little gallows humor: "Second Season Survivor, " they say, referring to all the Vice media madness -- and turmoil on the set.

Johnson comes over and chats occasionally during breaks between scenes. I have questions about how I'm supposed to read my lines, I tell him.

"What's my motivation?" I say. "Same as everyone else, " he says. "F--- it up and you don't get paid."

So how's it going? he asks. I try to hide my mushrooming stage fright, but either he's real intuitive or I'm not a very good actor. Or both.

"You'll be fine, " he says. I decide not to tell him about Mrs. Greene.

"Well, " he says, "I figured two things might happen for you here. Either you'll get a good story, or . . ." He nodded towards a couple of hot-looking extras. I decide not to tell him about high school, either.

The time grows near. Robert Paisley, who is Philip Michael Thomas' stand-in, asks me if I want to rehearse my lines with him. I'm grateful. This makes me feel better -- even though I keep screwing it up. I try different inflections. Finally, it's showtime.

Johnson calls out for me. Thomas comes out on the set. I climb behind the bar. The idea is that the killer had been in the bar with her latest victim the night before, and Tubbs is showing me pictures from the dating service in the hope I can I.D. someone.

Johnson says to try running through it once. Thomas gives me his line. My mind is blank. But somehow words come out of my mouth. I can't hear them. "That's perfect, " says Johnson.

The stand-ins take our places while they "block" the scene -- i.e., set up the cameras and angles. Even I get one. Union rules. My stand-in is named Jeff Hughes, a young, good-looking guy trying to break into the business. It's tough for young, good-looking guys to get roles like yours, he tells me enviously. What do you suppose he meant by that?

On the monitor I look like F. Murray Abraham, the cinematographer says. I know that Abraham won an Oscar for Amadeus. I'm encouraged. "But don't worry, man, I'll make you look good, " he says. I'm discouraged.

Johnson starts making jokes about all the bad press he's gotten in The Herald. I'm terrified.

"And . . . action!"

A strange calm comes over me. "Just take your time, " says Tubbs. I look at the pictures. I tug my ear. Nice touch, I think. "This one, " I say, pausing, tapping my finger three times on a picture of Iman, the model/actress who plays the killer, "was here last night."

"You're sure?" says Tubbs.

"She ain't so easy to forget, man, " I say, ad-libbing the "man." I expect to hear Johnson scream, "Cut." He doesn't. I go on. "I just can't tell you for sure whether she was with him or not." I point at the picture of the victim.

That's it. Johnson says, "Cut. That's a take." That's it?

"Sonuvabitch, " he says. "I'm gonna kill you. You did it in one take!"

"That's it?" I say. "That's it, " he says -- except for one shot they have to do just of my hand pointing at the pictures.

"You're a natural, " Johnson says. "See, I knew it -- you watch 8,000 hours a year of TV like you do, you know instinctively how to act. Of course, most people wouldn't have been so brazen as to ad-lib . . ."

A few weeks later I call Vice executive producer Michael Mann, out in L.A., to ask him if I can see a rough cut of the show.

When I get it, I am, well, chagrined. Agggh! When did all that hair fall out? When did my forehead get so big?

I call Mann back for his appraisal of my performance. "A screen debut of staggering dimension, range and verisimilitude, " he says deadpan. "I'm considering you for the lead in my next feature."

He pauses. "Which episode were you in again?" he asks, breaking up.

This story was originally published on January 15, 1988