Everyone knows this actor’s tall, dark blonde hair, blue-eyed good looks, the smoky, graveled voice, and his self-deprecating humor. Known more for his TV roles than his films, Don Johnson is the man who literally helped put Miami on the entertainment map with his breakout starring role of undercover detective James “Sonny” Crockett in Michael Mann’s ground-breaking, ”Miami Vice.”
After four failed TV pilots, Johnson finally landed the role that would define his acting career — a gruff, hard-living cop chasing drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and arms dealers on the South Florida coast. He even directed four highly regarded episodes, including one co-starring long-time love Melanie Griffith. From 1984 to 1989, Johnson’s character typically wore $1,000 designer suits over pastel colored cotton t-shirts, drove Ferraris, sported expensive Rolex watches and RayBans, and lived on a 40’ sailboat with a pet alligator named Elvis. Defining 80s television like no other show of its time, “Miami Vice” was famous for its revolutionary use of music cinematography, lavish imagery and popular music soundtracks.
During this peak in his acting career, Johnson also appeared in several films, including the critically acclaimed TV film, “The Long Hot Summer” in 1985, adapted from the William Faulkner novel, and the 1988 film “Sweet Hearts Dance” with Susan Sarandon. After “Miami Vice” ended he concentrated solely on his film career for many years, starring in “Dead Bang” (1989), “The Hot Spot” (1990) and “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” (1991). While many films did not meet critical expectations, some have obtained a considerable cult following with his fans. During his career, Johnson worked with several legendary filmmakers including John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Dennis Hopper.
In 1996, Johnson returned to his first acting love, television. He developed and starred in the CBS police drama Nash Bridges with Cheech Marin until 2001. He played the title role of Nash Bridges, an inspector (later captain) for the San Francisco Police Department. In “Nash Bridges,” Johnson drove a flashy bright yellow 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible. In 2010, he appeared in the HBO series “Eastbound and Down.” He later was cast in ABC’s 2015 series “Blood and Oil.”
Johnson personal life has been rocky one, checkered with failed marriages, sexual indiscretions, substance use, and legal issues. He was born in Flat Creek, Missouri, the son of beautician Eva Lea (Wilson) and farmer Freddie Wayne Johnson. He originally wanted to be a professional bowler, but after run-ins with the law at a young age, Johnson discovered acting. His big break came with the controversial off-Broadway play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes”, which was directed by and starred Sal Mineo. The play, with its realistic prison rape scene, generated significant press due to its subject of homosexuality in the arts.
After working on the stage for a while he ventured into films and television, starring in the sci-fi kinky, black comedy “A Boy and His Dog” in 1975. A MovieZoot watchlist film of the week, “A Boy and His Dog” is set in 2024 in an apocalyptic wasteland in the Southwest following WWiV. Johnson’s sex-starved main character, Vic, is accompanied by his telepathic dog, Blood, a “rover” that searches for women (to serve Vic’s carnal needs), supplies and enemies. It is based on Sci-fi writer, Harlan Ellison’s story. Even though the plot is stranger than strange, this cult classic ends up consistently on lists of the top science fiction films of all time. It is said to have served as inspiration for “Mad Max.”
During the late 1960s and early 70s, Johnson had two short-lived marriages that were annulled. Johnson lived a bit of “Lolita” story with his love, Melanie Griffith. Her mother, Hitchcock “It” girl, Tippi Hedren, who co-starred with him in “The Harrad Experiment” (1973), gave Johnson permission to date her daughter despite the fact that she was only 14 and he was 22. When Griffith was 15, they began living together in a house in Laurel Canyon. On her 18th birthday, they became engaged, and in January 1976 they married for the first time, but divorced in July. In the 1980s, Johnson lived with actress Patti D’Arbanville and they had a son. He was also romantically involved with Barbara Streisand, with whom he recorded a chart-topping duet, “Til I loved You” in 1989. He even recorded his own marginally successful album, “Heartbeat.” Johnson and Griffith reunited in 1989 and had a daughter, actress Dakota Johnson, who was born October 4, 1989. He remarried Griffith in 1989, but they divorced in 1996 when she fell for Antonio Banderas. Johnson and his current fifth wife Kelly Phleger married in 1999 and they have three children.
Daughter Dakota Johnson seems to have inherited the family legacy for acting, most recently appearing in the highly successful 50 Shades screen trilogy. She is known in the industry for her beauty, talent and professionalism. In 1999, she made her film debut in “Crazy in Alabama,” with her half-sister, Stella Banderas, playing daughters to real-life mother, Melanie Griffith. The film was directed by her stepfather, Antonio Banderas. 2010 brought her brief film recognition in “The Social Network.” Since then she has had many roles with some of Hollywood’s sexiest leading men. It is her sex-charged BDSM role of Anastasia Steele (playing opposite Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey) though for which she is most well-known, appearing in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Fifty Shades Darker,” and the soon-to-be-released “Fifty Shades Freed.”
It looks like sexual subjects are part of the Johnson family acting legacy.
Watch “A Boy and His Dog” on MovieZoot.com here.