Question: There's no bet here, just an argument. Didn't that foxy Don Johnson help create Miami Vice? I thought it was supposed to be a vehicle for him. Thank you. — Kris E., Somerville, Mass.
Televisionary: You mean the foxy one as opposed to... the unfoxy one?
Assuming we're talking about the same Don Johnson, Miami Vice was most definitely not created by or for him, Kris. It was spawned by a two-word memo from late NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, who was said to have jotted "MTV cops" on an executive pad, thus launching the whole idea. And the casting process involved going through many an actor before the producers were able to persuade reluctant network execs to sign Johnson for the series, which debuted in September 1984.
"They looked at every actor from New York to Los Angeles," Johnson told TV Guide in 1984. Not only that, but even after his screen test, when the producers were pushing for him, NBC execs continued to have their doubts because Johnson wasn't a marketable star and had already appeared in five failed pilots. Thus, even after Johnson sat down with the network suits to allay their fears, they still equivocated for a while before finally offering it to him. "It was a nervous moment," he said of the time.
Yet Johnson was perfect for the part of hard-living vice cop Sonny Crockett. He had, after all, done plenty of hard living himself. He'd already married and divorced Melanie Griffith, among others, done enough partying in the Hollywood Hills to admit he didn't "remember it all that clearly sometimes, those days" and had survived, both literally and professionally, more than a few of his former party pals from the late '60s and '70s. By the time Vice came along, he'd already quit drinking and was living a healthier lifestyle, but he still knew the territory. "At least I've got a role that fits me," he said.
As for NBC's worries that Johnson and costar Philip Michael Thomas, who played partner Rico Tubbs, were relative unknowns? It didn't matter. Miami Vice quickly became a cultural force, and its stars were almost beside the point. The real draw of the show was the setting, the clothes, the music and the decadent lifestyle of the series' version of drug- and vice-ridden Miami. It was all about the look and the style — MTV cops — and executive producer Michael Mann knew it well.
"As far as we're concerned, we make little movies," Mann said in 1985. "Once a week for a little over a million dollars."
With a concept described as Casablanca with cocaine and cabanas, Mann carefully planned his shoots to play up the brightly colored Bizarro World of the show's setting. "We need a location for some sleazoid junkie, OK? I don't want the basic wood-frame house," Mann explained. "I want streamlined deco; I want some radical building of the '20s.... I don't want any traditional home with French Provincial furniture. We want the Pink House, which was house of the year in 1979 — post-modernist, beautiful blazing pinks. We want the Ortega mansion. It's a glass and chrome and stucco Bauhaus-looking place. Four million dollars."
Same went for the clothes. "Tubbs I want to keep very urbane, so he has a lot of double-breasted jackets with peaked lapels. A lot of sharp angles around him. A lot of dark shirts with a Day-Glo purple tie. We try to keep Tubbs Manhattan, keep Crockett casual chic. He wears a lot of rounded, soft shapes and it's all single-breasted. Everything is soft. It's supposed to look like Crockett gets up in the morning, unshaven, reaches in the closet and throws on the first thing he grabs — except that it's a soft linen Versace jacket over a T-shirt."
And the formula worked. These were the days before cable TV had any original programming that was taken seriously — if it was watched at all — and the right network could still make for edgy TV. So Miami Vice was a trendsetter and soon enough you could actually buy an electric razor that would give you Johnson's trademark facial shadow. Of course, the problem with being cutting edge is you're bound to go out of style sooner or later, and Vice did.
After being all anyone could talk about, the show got beaten up by Dallas — in the season Bobby Ewing came back to life, his death explained away as a dream. Ouch. For its ins-and-outs list for 1987, USA Today put the show at No. 6... in the "out" category. By then, Vice's stories were murky at best, indecipherable at worst, and its dialogue was muddy. People even criticized the change in colors — from its early Florida pastels to a dark, gray-and-black palette. It ignored the city of Miami, critics said, and put together ever-more preposterous plots. Things got bad enough that in March 1988, TV Guide ran a story with the headline "If it's not too late... here's how Miami Vice can revive its magic."
It was, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, not dark yet, but it was getting there. And any advice was too little, too late. Vice was gone by mid-1989.