It is high summer in Miami Beach, and the heat is Ethiopian. Down along the sweltering strand, off-season carcinoma fanciers sizzle under the fierce midday sun or baste listlessly in the souplike surf. But up here in the Hotel Alexander, far above the human barbecue, coolness reigns. The air is crisply conditioned, the décor moderne. Don Johnson fits right in.
He is wearing white suede deck shoes, off-white cotton slacks and — this being the season of ”no more earth tones” on Miami Vice — a bright banana-yellow T-shirt. No socks, of course, and the celebrated chin stubble is perfect. A pair of Italian shades lies on the coffee table before him, and his eyes glint green and blue in the sunlight bouncing off a glass-top desk near the windows. Under the desk is a near life-size plastic replica of Elvis the alligator, Detective Sonny Crockett’s eccentric pet; on a nearby wall are two gold keys awarded to Elvis and to Johnson, who plays Crockett on Miami Vice, by the City of North Miami. Elsewhere on the walls are photos of Donnie with famous friends and acquaintances — Cybill Shepherd, Miles Davis, Ronald Reagan — and a swarm of framed magazine covers on which he is featured: People, TV Guide (three of them), Tiger Beat, the Star, even Mad. Also something called the Gorgeous Guys Photo Album. No mention of Don’s recent pay raise — which reportedly put him over the $100,000-per-episode mark but one look at the half pound or so of pricey Ebel wristwatch wrapped around his well-tanned arm or the sleek gray Mercedes that’s parked out front, and you get the idea. Johnson is smiling. Let’s face it, you’d be, too.
We are sitting in the Don Johnson Office, a suite of rooms of which the star’s is the largest. In the others, office staffers — all female, mostly young: the Hen Squad, Don calls them — briskly administer his burgeoning empire. The Hotel Alexander is also home base for the Miami Vice production office, but that’s on another floor and need not concern us. The action’s all here. Don’t misunderstand: Johnson appreciates what Vice has done for him. It’s provided more than just fame and fortune and the attendant perks: the chauffeured Mercedes with the cellular phone and the top drawer Alpine tape deck; the big silver Blue Bird mobile home stocked with the Sony A/V stack, a personal chef and a fridge full of Johnson’s favorite coconut Popsicles; the thirty-eight-foot Scarab speedboat, with twin 420s in the stern, in which the off-duty Don likes to go for restless, postmidnight roars along Miami’s moon-splashed canals, rattling the condo windows of all the less interestingly rich by whom he’s now surrounded.
No, Miami Vice has meant much more than all that. The show has enabled Don Johnson, after eighteen years in showbiz — some of them truly grueling — finally to exercise all his options. Vice is nice: heading into its third season, the New Wave cop show that rewrote the rules for prime-time TV style is hotter than ever. But what it’s mainly allowing him to do is branch out. And at thirty-six, looking back on a drug-addled youth merrily piddled away in bad B movies and worse, branching out is very much on Johnson’s artistic agenda — however towering his current tube renown.
”This won’t last forever,” Don says, chastely sipping a Perrier. ”It’ll change. It’ll become something else, maybe.”
Strike that ”maybe.” In the last year, Johnson — who no longer drinks, smokes, dopes or even sweats, for all a casual observer can tell — has stepped out from under the Vice umbrella to star in a well-received TV remake of The Long Hot Summer and, with buddy Glenn Frey, to appear in a profitable and high-profile Pepsi commercial. Right now he’s got at least three feature-film scripts in development, one of which — he hopes it’s the one that has him playing the manager of a hot, young rock band — will definitely start shooting next spring, during the Vice production break. That annual interlude is playtime for Johnson. This year he utilized it to whip up another project, and that is what really has him grinning now as the day dwindles down toward camera call for the third episode of the upcoming Vice season. Last spring, Johnson began working on some tracks at Miami’s Criteria studios, and the resulting tracks, ten in all, are finally ready for release under the title Heartbeat. It is Don’s debut album.
Yes, you heard that right: Don Johnson has made a record. Already you’re thinking: Spare us, sweet Jesus. Not another TV-star pop move. Not another David-fucking-Hasselhoff, or some hideous New Age Jim Nabors. And not — please, dear God — not another Philip Michael Thomas turn.
Surely you remember? Perhaps not. Thomas, who plays Ricardo Tubbs to Don’s Crockett on Vice, released an album of his own last year, called Living the Book of My Life. It was a humongous bomb — the music a tepid gruel of treacly reggae, the lyrics a mind-puckering jambalaya of self-enthused psychobabble, the sound akin to something one might hear inside an industrial trash dumpster. Thomas took credits for almost all of it and fell flat on his profile. Nice voice. Musical taste: nada. The vaunted Vice charisma did not carry over. Living the Book of My Life made a beeline for the cutout bins, and Philip Michael Thomas’s hipness index dipped precipitously.
So why is Don Johnson, on the eve of offering up his own first disc for critical delectation, still smiling? Lame attempts by TV hotshots to rock out have been routinely savaged by reviewers over the years. Doesn’t he fear backlash, a repeat of the P.M.T. debacle? A possible Vice wipeout?