Inside 'Miami Vice'

Sex and drugs and rock & roll ambush prime-time TV

American actors Philip Michael Thomas as Tubbs and Don Johnson as Crockett in a scene from the TV detective series 'Miami Vice', circa 1988. Credit: Tom Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty

"I got stopped for speeding on Collins Avenue. The cop says, 'Where are you going?' I say, 'The production office of Miami Vice.' He says, 'Oh, you work on Miami Vice?' I say, 'Yeah, I'm the executive producer.' He says, 'Oh, I got a great story for you.' He forgets all about writing me a ticket, he gives me a great story and I use it." Michael Mann laughs. He goes on: "This show is a ball. It's absolutely a blast. I mean, how else do you get to tell twenty-two stories a year? Or hear a song like 'Smuggler's Blues' on the radio and say, 'Wow, those lyrics are fantastic. Let's do an episode on it.' Think, Who knows this shit better than anybody? Mikey -- you know, Miguel Piñero [the ex-convict who wrote Short Eyes]. Get him to write a script, have lunch with Glenn Frey two days later and ask him if he wants to play Jimmy, the pilot. Bang, it's on the air in four weeks."

Miami Vice is the NBC series that is blowing standard television out of the water. It's the show that keeps people who usually don't watch TV at home with their phones off the hook on Friday nights. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas play two sexy, funky detectives, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, who ride around in a black Ferrari Daytona, picking off the master drug and flesh peddlers of southern Florida. Since they're undercover in such a slick crowd, they can't afford to be slouches in the clothes department Tubbs wears $800 Verri Uomo double-breasted suits and dark silk shirts with narrow Italian ties. Sonny has a gold Rolex and carries a Bren 10-mm semiautomatic pistol, a gun so new it is considered experimental by most special-weapons teams. The show's story line is not that unusual; it's standard shoot-'em-up cop fare. But there are differences that are immediately apparent.

Johnson and Thomas have a quirky individualism more often seen in movie stars than in television actors, and their show looks more like a motion picture than TV. The design scheme is a juxtaposition of flashy high tech (cars, guns, chrome interiors) with the pastel colors and art deco lines of the restored South Beach area of Miami. In one scene from the pilot episode, following a long shot of Crockett and Tubbs in the Ferrari, the car rolls to a stop under an arching pink and blue neon sign that reads Bernay's Cafe. Beneath the sign is alone, lit telephone booth. Everything else is blacked out. Sonny gets out of the car and steps to the phone. Edward Hopper in Miami.

As expensive as the show is to produce (it is one of TV's priciest, at a more than $1 million per episode), Miami Vice is reaping commercial rewards as well as critical acclaim. Syndication rights have been sold to Canada, Australia and the BBC. The two-hour pilot will be released as a feature film in Europe. And the ratings, only modest at first -- as were those of NBC's two other hits, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere -- would take off if the show found a better time slot. But even airing on Friday night, when most of its potential audience is out of the house, Miami Vice has consistently between Matt Houston in local ratings and on several occasions topped the reigning Falcon Crest. The fact that Miami Vice can do that, despite the weekend activities of its young urban audience, is testament to its potential for success. Mike Levine, NBC's director of current drama programs, says that the network is overjoyed with the show's performance. In a highly unusual move, NBC announced the series' renewal on the air after the February 8th episode.

Nobody could be happier about all this than Michael Mann, a reluctantly handsome, driven forty-one-year-old. He smokes incessantly and gestures with his whole body. Danger defines his modus vivendi, and he surrounds himself with people of similar appetites. For instance, in 1979 and 1980, he made three research trips into Southeast Asia to gather material for a screenplay. He stole into the Golden Triangle with a member of one of the Thai hill tribes, met veterans of the exiled Chinese Kuomintang armies and observed the conflicts between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mann is the single most important force behind Miami Vice. It is, simply, his baby. His mark is apparent in every frame of every episode. Mann's style involves an aggressive use of visual images, camera angles and sound. There's no formula, but there is an attitude: surprise the viewers, confront them, involve them directly. The Jericho Mile, a TV film that earned four Emmys, was made this way, as was the cult film Thief, which starred James Caan. Miami Vice is a direct descendant of Mann's earlier work.

Mann spends half of his time in L.A., where the story and postproduction work is done, and the other half in Miami. He is more than thorough, more than inspired. He is obsessed with managing every detail of the show, from script to final edit. And although he won't hire anyone but the extraordinarily talented, he makes it clear -- to cast, crew, staff and public -- that this is the Michael Mann Show and only one person is indispensable. Despite his dictatorial style, Mann enjoys the fierce loyalty, even affection, of his cast and crew. Says producer John Nicolella, the man at the top in Miami: "Michael was in charge of the whole visual sense of the show, all this slick stuff -- which car, what the clothes look like, the colors, the kind of film cutting. He said, 'It'll be this and this and this,' and he has maintained that all along. He also found a nut like me who will follow it to the end of the world."

Yesterday's shooting wrapped at two a.m. It's around four in the afternoon, today's work has only just started, and the hundred-member cast and crew won't go home before the sun rises tomorrow. Twelve- to seventeen-hour days are the norm. Everyone is exhausted, but they still talk animatedly about the show and approach it as if it were a twenty-two-hour feature film, using phrases like "living, breathing thing."

"Take a chance, take a chance," Nicolella tells them. And they do. Taking chances and pushing limits is what this outfit is all about. Those who can't cut it are quickly weeded out. "The attrition rate here is incredible," says Mann. "It's like a race car -- say you're driving at Daytona. You have to go 500 miles. You've driven the race car right if, after 500th mile, it cannot do the 501st. You've used everything up."

Two trailers are parked side by side. Johnson's and Thomas' homes on the set are indistinguishable except for the cars beside them. Johnson has a silver-blue Mercedes; Thomas has a Lincoln Town Car. Although the guys spend almost every weekend doing benefits (the last was a charity cooking contest, for which the two prepared Felony Chicken and Vice Rice), they have little time to hang out together. Thomas spends his few free hours, usually in the wee hours of the morning, finishing up an album in a nearby recording studio. Nevertheless, their offscreen relationship, which began as a charged rivalry, is slowly yet undeniably developing the same respect and protective affection that has emerged on camera between Tubbs and Crockett.

It is 2:30 a.m. and forty degrees. Idle members of the crew are telling jokes, looking for coffee, trying to keep warm, when Don Johnson's assistant beckons to me. She tells me that Don has time to talk now. When I get to the trailer, a bodyguard stops me at the door, checks inside with Don, nods me inside. Johnson is on the telephone. He doesn't acknowledge my presence. The trailer is set up like an office, upholstered in a somber brown, and the table, an automatic coffee maker and a cellular phone are clearly the room's focal points. A brass-faced clock and matching barometer are hung on the wall, and his bedroom is neat as a pin, not a slipper to be seen.

Johnson's golden-brown hair is swept straight back and falls in careful layers to a perfect collar line. On the set, he frequently combs it into place, as it has the habit of falling rakishly over his eyes. His perfect features -- straight nose, even teeth -- give him an untouchable, macho cool, but his sensual mouth and soft, Cancerian eyes hint at another side of him, a side that at times shows through as fear in his gaze. This is the look that wins fans, that makes him seem heartbreakingly vulnerable. As Sonny Crockett, he is a roiling pot of emotions that are most often discharged in wiseass smart talk. But the love-hurt ex-husband and devoted dad peeks through those sad eyes and drives the girls wild.

Johnson, 35, has that star quality people speak about. When he's around, you have to take notice. It's not just that he's strikingly handsome and wears nice cologne and tinted lenses, or that his freshly ironed clothes smell like Ivory Snow. He demands attention, even when he's silent.

As his phone call ends, a prop man comes in to retrieve Crockett's gun, shoulder holster and the gold Rolex. "They take off your Rolex?" I ask. "Yeah," says Johnson, acknowledging my presence for the first time, "and I put on my own." Johnson's Rolex is stainless steel. As it turns out, the $8600 gold watch is a fake. "I wouldn't wear one of those goddamned things," he says. "They're pretentious and boring." Some fan letters addressed in girlish script lie on the table. There is a leatherbound notebook with the gold initials DWJ, a calculator and a gold-colored pen. He sits down across the table from me and says, "So?"

Johnson wasn't completely pleased with the episode that aired tonight, but he has trouble pinpointing the reason. "Here's the thing: Our show will never be the same every week. Which is one of the reasons I love it. We don't have a formula. The problem is trying to tell the story from beginning to middle to end in an hour without losing the human aspect. The character bits and studies. The relationships." Johnson is untroubled that he, the macho white guy, plays the leader. "After all," he says, "what we're doing is selling soap. And a major portion of the population that buys is white. And they have to relate. On the other hand, we're stretching the boundaries about as far as we can stretch them.

"This is the most unselfish group of actors I've ever worked with," Johnson says about his colleagues on Miami Vice. "We're a bunch of misfits, really. Every one of these people has paid his dues. The only thing that really makes us feel good is to take these chances. We've been through drugs and alcohol and outlaws and thieves. The whole crew is reformed. I mean, we've been around the block. I'm not saying we're the only messiah of the street -- but we're damn sure one of 'em." (Later, someone told me of an actor -- not one of the principals -- who had a little trouble with drugs and stole money from a director's trailer. Some of the cast members got together with him and worked it out themselves.)

Johnson's been around the block, as he says. Some of his more well-publicized exploits include abandoning former Miss World Marjorie Wallace to marry a former flame, actress Melanie Griffith, whom he first met in 1972 when she was fourteen and he was twenty-two, working on The Harrad Experiment with her mother, Tippi Hedren. And it's not easy for him to forget the regular bouts with drugs and booze that just about did in his acting career.

"I think my values were kind of fucked up before," he says, "and I didn't know what I wanted. I was always interested in the next party."

His life has since turned around. With the help of what he calls a higher power, he rid himself of booze and dope. His earthly reward is companion Patti D'Arbanville and their two-year-old son, Jesse -- the two of whom provide him with the first happy family life he's known.

Johnson had a difficult childhood and a rebellious youth in small-town Kansas. At twelve, he was sent to a juvenile-detention center for hot-wiring a car. At fifteen he left home and ended up moving in with a twenty-six-year-old woman. Later, he got a part-time job in a meat plant and was prone to falling asleep in school. Through the lucky intervention of a high-school guidance counselor -- whose advice to take a drama course was a last-ditch effort to help Johnson graduate -- he found his way into acting. He also sings, and counts former Allman Brother Dickey Betts among his friends. Johnson shares the writing credit for a couple of songs on the band's Enlightened Rogues album. He is currently involved in some musical projects of his own, and has been known to duck into the recording studio with Philip Michael Thomas.

An assistant director comes to the door and tells Johnson he's needed on the set. Johnson stands up, opens the freezer and takes out a pint of Swiss almond vanilla Häagen-Dazs. He spoons up a few mouthfuls and puts it back. "You stay in here and keep warm," he says to me, "I'll be right back." Johnson's man Friday putters around the trailer. He examines the contents of the refrigerator, Packs up a VCR and a cable box. It makes perfect sense to me that Johnson has those brass dials on the wall. The ship's captain, the man informed and in charge. I go back outside to watch the action.

The Ma-Kao Chinese restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard looks like a castle from a Ray Bradbury story. Rising from the roof is a spire of red and blue neon. It glows for miles over the flat stretch of highway. The crew is busy setting up for a gunfight that will be staged in the kitchen. It's taking a long time.

I hear quick, light footsteps and turn to see Philip Michael Thomas, dressed in jeans, football jersey and baseball cap. When Don Johnson walks into a room, attention must be fixed on him. Philip is different. He can enter a busy crowd and join in the camaraderie; he can be just one of the guys. As we go to his trailer, two of his aides spot a group of fans -- there are always fans following the costars -- outside the restaurant. The aides take Thomas by the elbows and rush him ahead. Philip calls out a few hellos before being hustled inside.

"Welcome to my monastery!" he says. I sit on the couch. He opens up his refrigerator and offers pear, mango and peach nectars, mineral waters, bottoled water, juice. He urges me to take something. The trailer is upholstered like Johnson's, except Thomas has chosen a sumptuous raspberry color. Unlike Johnson's hideout, Thomas' place is full of life. There are notes and papers and pens and pencils about, and dishes on the table. Clothes hang from the closet door, and his bedroom is filled with books. Up on the dashboard is a large head shot of Crockett and Tubbs.

Thomas, 35, sits facing me on the sofa. He has high Indian cheekbones, long lashes, green eyes and suggestions of colors from alizarin to topaz in his tawny skin. He seems comfortable with his good looks and radiates great energy and warmth. His steady eye contact exerts an almost physical pull. He listens carefully. He doesn't just speak; his words are sung, machine gunned, preached, Jamaican accented, rapped. His language is peppered with references to the Bible, eastern religions, astrology. He was once, in fact, a theology student. Later, at the University of California, he drove his philosophy instructors nuts with his free-form beliefs. Sometimes his language winds up way out in a mythical miasma of astrology and Zen and talk about God. For Someone who is able to express himself with such richness, and whose understanding of human nature is acute, his departure into astro-talk is baffling. Perhaps it is the line of defense not present in his eyes.

Ten Tubbses and ten Crocketts auditioned for the parts. Johnson and Thomas each read three or four times with different people. Thomas was on his way out when Universal Television talent vice-President Milt Hamerman asked him if he'd give it a go just one more time. Thomas agreed and walked into the room and saw Johnson. Johnson looked at him. Hamerman asked if they'd like to rehearse for a couple of minutes. They shook their heads, just read it cold. What happened then, says Thomas, was, "BAM! That instant thing. The explosion happened and it was like two wild animals. And I told him, 'You're gonna need me, bud-dy!' There was that thing, that man thing."

Philip Michael Thomas' character, Ricardo Tubbs, is the spark of the show, a buoyant, spiritual contrast to Sonny's fragile bravado. Still, he is a costar. Tubbs has to work for the camera's attention. Crockett gets the clever lines. It is an easy trap for a series with costars to fall into. Yet it generates a competition that ignites the show. Thomas says: "I'm out there, fighting for things, going for things, and Don's ego is out there; he wants to be the Great White Hope. And I say, fine! I can deal with diat. I love that! Because it forms a connection that makes people whisper, 'What's that, what are they doing?' You know, 'Who's gonna explode next?'"

Thomas is Johnson's staunchest defender. "Sure, he does have a serious ego, but there's a part of Don I know that's real sensitive, that's very spiritual, that is, you know, like a pussycat."

Thomas is not resting on his newfound success and riches. He has put a plan in motion that he calls EGOT. Within the next five years, his goal is to win or be nominated for an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. He is recording and producing an album of his own songs that he expects will be released in the next few months (Grammy). He wants to buy the rights to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play No Place to Be Somebody, in which he starred on Broadway, and he has cowritten a musical titled The Legend of Stagger Lee that has twenty-two songs, twelve of which he wrote himself (two for the Tony). And he's working on a couple of film deals (Oscar). Miami Vice, of course, is his ticket to an Emmy. "This is just a stepping stone for me to something far greater, and it's a great, great stepping stone."

Miami Vice is set apart from other TV shows by its music. "I've been asked," says Michael Mann, "if we are doing the same thing as MTV. We're not. If the whole video approach -- stylized film along to song -- is considered a movement, which it is, then you could say we're first cousins." Their common ancestor, according to Mann, is the concept of sound as counterpoint to visual images that was formulated by the revolutionary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the late 1930s. "We haven't invented the Hula-Hoop or anything," says Mann. "If anything, we're only contemporary. And if we're different from the rest of TV, it's because the rest of TV isn't even contemporary."

Fred Lyle, the show's associate producer and music coordinator, chooses current hits for the show and mixes them in with the rest of the soundtrack. No stale TV covers here. Miami Vice is willing to pay for the songs. Many sequences in the show are shot without dialogue, in the fragmented, fantastic style of music videos. Even when there is dialogue and the show looks like a movie, music is an important element. In the episode called "Smuggler's Blues," Glenn Frey's song was used several times, in what Mann hoped would be an almost operatic dialogue with the action.

Explains Lyle: "Instead of doing the whole show and letting Frey's song tell the pain and anguish of being a smuggler at the end, over the credits, like you'd expect on TV, we're using the song maybe eight times throughout the show. You're in a scene, and all of a sudden up comes Frey, singing, 'It's the lure of easy money. It's got a very strong appeal.' And you're out again. It's like a Greek chorus, coming in to chant, 'Fear him, Fear him!'"

After a rough edit of an episode is completed, the videotape is sent to New York, to the upstate farmhouse of Jan Hammer. Reviewers have raved about the "authentic" reggae and calypso soundtrack music on the show. But it is really Hammer performing on a Moog analog synthesizer. He also uses a Fairlight CMI -- a digital player and recorder -- as well as a Steinway piano and a guitar for the "dirty, chunky rhythms" that are best done on the real instrument. Only someone who understands the phrasing of a violin, cello and bass can use the Fairlight to compose a string quartet. Hammer -- the son of a jazz singer, and a founding member of Mahavishnu Orchestra who has worked with such artists as Sarah Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Al DiMeola and Neal Schon -- can. Lyle says, "He's no three-chord rock & roller. One of the best things about my job is getting to talk to Jan Hammer."

For the pilot, Mann told Hammer he wanted a theme that people could recognize immediately. Hammer came back with the music you hear under the credits -- a rapping, cracking beat that stretches from Latin to rock to calypso and across Miami. Mann liked it so much that Hammer now has carte blanche to do what he wants. This spring, MCA [Cont. on 125] Miami Vice [Cont. from 62] will release an album of Miami Vice music, half of which will be Hammer's. Hammer uses music to tell the story subliminally. In the pilot, Tubbs has frequent flashbacks of his brother's execution at the hands of a powerful drug dealer named Calderone. A melody of Andean pan-flute music is laid under the memories. The music is repeated in a subsequent episode, "Calderone's Demise" -- this time with a rhythm added to it -- during an uncommonly sensuous love scene between Tubbs and Angelina, a woman he meets on the island who turns out to be Calderone's daughter. Hammer is even credited with saving an episode whose story line was lost. His music developed and repeated phrases, pulling the viewer through muddy transitions. Ironically, that episode, "Score," beat out Falcon Crest in New York and Philadelphia, pushing Miami Vice into the top ratings position in those major urban markets. The idea that became 'Miami Vice' was floating around NBC for a while before the network's entertainment president, Brandon Tartikof, brought it to the attention of a young Universal Television executive, Kerry McCluggage. He then brought it to the attention of Tony Yerkovich, a former supervising producer of Hill Street Blues who agreed to write a rough-draft teleplay. Michael Mann assumed creative control of the show as executive producer. Mann asked John Nicolella -- who had worked on such films as Saturday Night Fever, Interiors, La Luna and Times Square -- to produce the pilot, tentatively titled "Gold Coast." Nicolella finished the $5 million project, then took all of his money out of the bank and went lion hunting in Africa. He figured Mann and Universal would want a studio man to run the show. But Mann asked Nicolella to help out and eventually gave him back his job. Nicolella is described by a crew member as the guy who looks like Luciano Pavarotti. His suite, on the fourth floor of the Konover Hotel in Miami Beach, is a caricature of a TV producer's office. Hundreds of people stream in and out, the telephone never stops ringing, Nicolella is on two lines at the same time, and he's buzzing someone in the door. Perched on his desk are two ceramic lamps -- an alligator and a flamingo -- that he bumps occasionally with a wild gesticulation and then touches gently, as if suddenly realizing where he is. A huge television stares up from the far end of the room. A couple of couches line the walls and are filled with people at this moment. The first and second assistant directors, the location manager, production manager, director David Anspaugh, an accountant and Don Johnson, who wants to speak to Nicolella alone. Johnson doesn't realize he's in for a four-hour production meeting. Nobody does. "Where you hanging the meat, John?" yells Johnson. It's very hot outside, and Nicolella has the air conditioning on absurdly high. Johnson's voice can be as smooth as Glenfiddich, or raspy evidence of the hazards of life in the fast lane. Nicolella calls the meeting to order and begins to examine, page by page, the budget for the previous episode. (For instance, he warns that he never again wants to have to hire frogmen to chase down Sonny Crockett's pet alligator, Elvis, like he did after Elvis snapped his chain and launched a determined sortie toward Cuba.) Nicolella works in a business in which lunch for everyone costs $14,000 a week, and keeping the crew ten minutes late for a meal incurs a $4000 penalty. He kicks his feet back and forth under the table and frequently holds his head in his hands. He's nervous, and he should be. "In this business," he says, "there are those of us who spend money and those who make money. I spend it. I spend it better than anybody." On 'Miami Vice,' when you see an officer dressed in the brown uniform of the Metro Dade police, it's usually the real thing. The cooperation of Metro Dade is crucial to the success of the show, and that cooperation is forthcoming largely because Metro Dade is impressed by the producers' attention to detail and interest in realism. Sergeant Bob Hoelscher and Commander Nelson Oramas are the show's two technical advisers. Sergeant Hoelscher, a weapons expert and regional training coordinator for Metro Dade, is a trim, soft-spoken veteran of the force. He has a habit of standing with his elbow in his holster, resting as if he were leaning against a low mantel. The trunk of his car is filled with munitions: barricade penetrators, Ruger Mini-14 rifles, semiautomatic assault rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, Bren 10mm's, a .357 Magnum, you name it. He is instrumental in straightening out the endless traffic and security problems resulting from shooting on location. He also sets up all tactical moves involving police, supervises the blowing up of houses and trailers and makes sure that police protocol is followed and firearms are used correctly. You can see him in many episodes. He's the cop with the gray whiffle cut who gently protects suspects' heads when they are stuffed into the paddy wagon. While the Dade police may appreciate the realism of Miami Vice, the people from Broadcast Standards do not. They have cut shots from the show that they considered too violent. Don Johnson disapproves: "The violence in our show is not gratuitous. It occurs in direct response to threats on the lives of police officers or citizens or in the line of police work." Nicolella says, "I choose not to judge the impact of the violence in our show. I don't believe the show is capable of inflicting as much damage as parents can at home." NBC's Mike Levine says, "Miami Vice pushes the Broadcast Standards people as far up against the wall as it can, in an attempt to be realistic. They go for it all, and Standards will pull them back." Levine adds that such shows as The A-Team and V get away with more violence because in those programs it's considered "cartoon violence." Whether cartoon violence -- in which a shotgun blast inflicts no bodily damage -- is less or more insidious than the realistic use of a gun -- in which the consequences of such action are seen -- is a question Broadcast Standards decides for itself. Ma-Kao restaurant's parking area is cordoned off. Fans are gathered around the tape, hoping to glimpse the actors. Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown, who play the vice squad's female detectives, Gina and Trudy, stop by the set. A lot of hugging and kissing goes on. The girls, as they're referred to, bring the cast together. Thomas and Johnson are in front of a brilliant white WSVN-TV light, shooting a public-service clip for Partners for Youth. The guys have done several benefits for the police department. It helps keep relations good between the production company and the Dade government. Tomorrow and Sunday are rest days. Tuesday, they'll wrap this show and head for Puerto Rico on Wednesday to shoot the next one. Monday, the editing of this episode will begin in Los Angeles and the music tracks will be laid down. A week before the air date, Jan Hammer will complete his end of the music and air express the tape back to L.A. The people who work on this show are addicts. They are addicted to the high-speed race that is Miami Vice. "There is something no one knows about us," one of the actors tells me. Frequently, the cast members, including Johnson and Thomas, get together and form a big circle, join hands and pray. At other times, they just close their eyes and let silence unite them. "Sometimes we talk about our problems," says one cast member, "but mostly we give thanks for what we have here." Don Johnson, A.K.A. Sonny Crockett Philip Michael Thomas, A.K.A. Richardo Tubbs Mann Over 'Miami': The Executive Producer