No one had more swagger in the Reagan era than Don Johnson. As Miami Vice‘s Sonny Crockett, the undercover detective and professional stubble-cultivator who lived on a houseboat with his pet alligator Elvis, he embodied masculine cool in the era of coke binges and Lamborghinis. He married actress Melanie Griffith (twice), made a gold-selling soft-rock album with support from Tom Petty and Ron Wood, and raced offshore powerboats with Chuck Norris and Kurt Russell on a professional team dubbed “Team USA.” (“Melanie advised me that it would be good for our marriage that I quit,” Johnson recalls of his brief foray into the largely forgotten sport. “Somebody died in every damn race we were in.”)
Three decades later, Johnson has never really lived down his role as Crockett. But the actor, now 64, has enjoyed something of a Renaissance from characters like Kenny Powers’ long-lost father “Eduardo Sanchez” on Eastbound and Down to Django Unchained‘s “Big Daddy.” Calling from his home in Montecito, Calif., Johnson told us about his days shooting in South Beach during the “Cocaine Cowboys” era, his new Miami-set show and why Crockett and Tubbs are ripe for a streaming reboot.
What were you doing when you got the call to be on Miami Vice?
I had auditioned for the pilot, which got pushed, and I said, To hell with it, I’m going to shoot this independent movie that just so happened to be shooting in Miami. I had made five pilots for [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff back then, and none of them were picked up. In one of them, believe it or not, Joaquin Phoenix played my son. He was like five at the time. The pilot was called Six Pack and it was a spinoff of the whole Kenny Rogers, NASCAR thing.
I was sailfishing with Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers band — he and I were pretty close back then — off the coast of Stewart, Florida one day, and I got a call “ship to shore,” which was pretty rare back then. The captain said, “Hey, Don, it’s your agent,” and I said, “Well tell him to fuck off, I’ve got a sailfish on the line.” [Laughs] So I boated the sailfish, and when I called up my agent and he said “Hey, Brandon Tartikoff wants you to come in.”
I auditioned with two or three actors they had for Ricardo Tubbs. Finally they put me with this guy named Philip Michael Thomas, and he and I just had this chemistry. Philip was jumping on the furniture, I was doing my Crockett thing. The dynamic just clicked.
What was your first impression of Miami? Had you spent much time there?
I’d been there a few times with the Allman Brothers Band, recording at Criteria Studio. I’d passed through. It started to change dramatically in the early Eighties. The drug flow was just insane — thus the creation of the show. When I got off the plane to do the pilot, you could feel the pressure cooker of violence in the air. We were shooting the pilot in a house down in Liberty City/Overtown. And the  Miami riots broke out. We had to shut down production because they were afraid for our lives. It was one of those cases where, “Well, we ain’t in Kansas no more.” But it was rich and raw. The whole city was just dilapidated, and it was during that time where there was a huge transition from the old white establishment to the influx of Cubans and Hispanics. That was a gigantic factor that contributed to the riots and unrest.
Had you seen Scarface? Did that prepare you for the role?
I had. Scarface in a lot of ways was larger than life and cartoonish. That’s not to say that it wasn’t like that, because it was like that. The guys running the drugs were coming from war-torn countries, and getting shot at was no big deal for them. Getting shot at, and having due process and actual laws that actually worked in their favor in some ways — you know, “You can’t pin it on me if I’m not there with the stuff,” blah blah blah — this was like a holiday.
I remember being out at this nightclub in Coconut Grove, called Cats. I got a couple of nice looking ladies with me, and in the next booth over was a guy I got to know pretty well, a big weight mover, and he had eight gorgeous girls sitting with him. At some point, I’m standing at [a] urinal and this guy stands next to me and he says [affects Miami accent] “Hey man, you that actor that plays that guy on TV, you guys are so cool.” And he reaches in his pocket and pulled out a baggie that would choke an elephant, full of the best looking blow I’ve ever seen, and says “I want you to have this, man.” Then he yanked it back real quick and said “Whoa, whoa… you’re not what you are on TV, ain’t ya?” And I said, “No, I’m not a cop but I’m not using, thanks but no thanks.” And that was the truth — I was clean and sober the entire time during Miami Vice.
How much of you is in that role?
Look, I was a child of the streets. I knew the game. So I brought to the character a certain authenticity about how it goes down, and the stakes. To try and figure out how much did Don Johnson slip into the character, and how much did the character become Don Johnson…those lines are blurred.
One of the things that people remember the most about the show is the fashions. Were you a clothes horse?
I didn’t have the money to be a clothes horse when I started the show, but I became one thereafter. It was the Eighties, man. It was all about what it looked like. I took what was handed to me and I turned it into my style. The rolled-up sleeves was a function of the fact that I had to have a jacket to cover the gun and the holster. I just stripped everything down to the bare minimum. I didn’t wear socks because it was too hot to wear damn socks. And the stubble was born out of the character, because it was intimated that he had been up partying with drug dealers for two or three days at a time. That was sort of an unspoken thing, which is why he was always unshaven and looked like he slept in his clothes.
he pulled out a baggie that would choke an elephant, full of the best looking blow i’ve ever seen. “i want you to have this, man.”
What was your impression of Philip Michael Thomas?
Philip is the kindest, most joyful person you could ever hope to spend 16 hours a day with for five years. I never had one argument with that guy. We were closer than brothers. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but I love him. There’s been talk recently about doing new episodes, and I’ve actually come up with some ideas for bridging the gap. I constantly get asked are you going to make more episodes. Up until recently, I would say “Nahh.” But I’m feeling that joy and enthusiasm I felt the first time around, to reprise the character of Sonny Crockett and see what we can do in the 21st century. It would be hot. There’s a thirst out there to see a reboot. But do it for streaming. Do it so they can binge on it.
There’s some pretty outlandish stories about you guys in the Vice days, particularly Philip — “EGOT” and all that. Whose ego was larger back then?
During the Eighties, everyone was suffering from ego-itis. Who can throw the bigger party? The guy that benefited the most from all that, and is still riding the same broom, is Donald Trump. Listen, I can only tell you that there was a lot of heat around Miami Vice, and it was easy to get seduced by the attention. In the second season, we were shooting in New York and we had a chase scene just off Wall Street. The buildings were filled with all these secretaries, and office workers. When Philip and I took off running, the windows flew open on those office buildings…and then the sky started raining panties. Not 100 — I’m talking thousands of panties raining down on the street. To this day, I can’t believe I saw what I saw. And what was really hilarious was watching the crew having to pick up all the panties so we could shoot again.
What did you love most about the show?
The show was so malleable — we could go anywhere with it, and do just about anything. And I loved Miami. So much that I’ve developed a new show to be filmed down there, set in the Eighties. It’s about the rise of big-time college football, and it’s called Score. We just got the pilot in, which I’m thrilled with.
I can imagine you and Jimmy Johnson being great friends. You were the alpha-male icons of Eighties Miami. You both had cool hair and the last name “Johnson.”
The thing I remember at that time was you could go to a party in Miami and, at that party, you’d see the football team, you’d see the chief of police, you’d see a US congressman and the Mayor and two or three of the biggest drug dealers. And every girl of, shall we say, eye-popping quality. And everybody would hang out together. It wasn’t just one party — this was all the time. So I thought this is a great time to revisit what has happened with big-time college football and to have an outrageous coach that is a compilation of all of those guys: [Barry] Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Steve Spurrier. It should make you look up from your Corn Flakes. It gives us a great opportunity to be equal opportunity offenders to everybody. The only group we didn’t offend in the pilot are the Latvians, but we’ll get to that.
The albums you and Philip Michael Thomas made are sometimes used as examples of celebrity hyperbole. Like, “What were they thinking?” Do you think you would have gotten the record deal with Epic if you weren’t “Don Johnson from Miami Vice“?
Quincy Jones signed me as an artist, when I was 16 years old. Had I chosen that path, I think I would have had some success in that area. But I also don’t discount what they’re saying. I think we benefited, and got to do things you wouldn’t normally get to do.
Do you still sing?
I get up occasionally and join an old friend on stage. Will Arnett got me up to sing an Otis Redding tune in France recently when we were hanging out. At the time I wanted to kill him, but it was so fun. I got to live a dream a lot of people don’t get to. And I’m happy with that.
Returning to Miami all these years later, what changes struck you?
When we were there, it was all retirement apartments that were dilapidated and rundown. We painted the facades of virtually every building up and down Collins Avenue and Ocean Avenue to match the color palettes that we had for the show. At the time, there were no cool people down there. When I was on The Carson Show with David Brenner, he joked: “Miami? What are you doing in Miami? I thought that’s where old Jewish women went to have Cuban children?” He accurately described it. If you shot a cannon off at South Beach, you would have hit maybe a blue heron and a Marielito.
What would you say is Miami Vice‘s most lasting impact?
The whole town kind of reinvented itself in the image of a television show. [Plus] you can’t turn on TV without seeing some influence from Miami Vice, be it the music, the cinematography, whatever.
What does it say about the 1980s?
Largesse. It was just a time of “more” [and] “bigger,” this period where the world was going through this growth spurt of style and fashion and enormous wealth, before technology took over in the Nineties. The last days of technological innocence, if you will.