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From ‘Vice’ to ‘Sweet Hearts’ : TV’s Favorite Miami Cop Picks a Sensitive Movie Role

Times Staff Writer

“Miami Vice” star Don Johnson has kept the photographer waiting long enough. He finally descends from the top floor of his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow and slips into a brocaded armchair, his shirt open to the waist.

He has a few ideas of his own about how this photo session should proceed. “What lens are you using?” he demands. Then, a bit later, refusing a pose: “This is not a flattering angle. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I can usually tell what looks good.”

Minutes into the session, Johnson declares that he’s had enough and walks out. Just like that, the session is over. “These pictures always look lousy in the newspaper anyways,” he calls over his shoulder as he moves back up the steps.

Welcome to the tempestuous world of Don Johnson, where cool telegenic charm can disappear into a black hole of celebrity hauteur faster than a speedboat in the Miami night. Johnson’s temper is already legendary in the Florida city that loaned its name to his stylish cop series. He stormed out of Miami last year after publicly blasting its press and city leaders. Both, he told USA Today last year, were guilty of “maligning” and “misusing” “Miami Vice” and its stars--even though, he added, the show had boosted tourism to Miami by “12 to 15%.”

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Johnson said in the same interview that he decided to sell his $1.4-million Star Island estate and move back to Los Angeles after learning about the Miami Herald’s “tabloid-esque” tactics in uncovering Gary Hart’s entanglement with model Donna Rice. (That comment prompted the Herald to print a tongue-in-cheek response, acknowledging that the paper’s editors had erred grievously by not checking with Johnson first before running such an important story.)

Johnson’s furor with Miami--and its local press--had been mounting for some time. Not content to stop at dutifully reprinting Johnson’s favorite dessert recipe (pistachio souffle) or his taste in women (he prefers a sense of humor), the Herald provided extensive coverage of his life in Miami.

There was the time, for example, that police officials canceled an 82 m.p.h. speeding ticket--until the paper got wind of the story. And another time when the paper printed the whereabouts of Johnson’s estate, prompting the actor to file a $2-million invasion-of-privacy suit against the broker who had leaked the news. The suit was later settled out of court.

There’s not a lot of love lost between Miami and Don Johnson, but then maybe it doesn’t matter much anymore. Johnson has confided to associates that he would not be heartbroken if this was the last season for “Miami Vice"--which has dropped from the ninth most popular show during its second season to No. 45 last season. As the series begins its fifth season, which debuts Nov. 4, Miami may not have Don Johnson to kick around any more.

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Johnson is already turning some of his attention to feature films. On Friday, theater audiences will be treated to the first movie he has made since “Miami Vice” rocketed this son of a Kansas farmer and his beautician wife to fame after a decade-long struggle up the show-business ladder.

In “Sweet Hearts Dance,” released by Tri-Star, Johnson stars alongside two Hollywood veterans--Susan Sarandon and Jeff Daniels--and the rising young star Elizabeth Perkins. He plays Wiley Boon, a carpenter in a small New England town who gets more fulfillment out of climbing gymnasium ropes with his high school buddy (Daniels) than going home to his longtime wife and high school sweetheart (Sarandon). It’s an examination of the Peter Pan principle that allegedly afflicts so many thirtysomething men.

Johnson’s reputation for sometimes being difficult and demanding on the set didn’t stop director Robert Greenwald from hiring the TV actor for “Sweet Hearts Dance.” In fact, Greenwald says he liked the edge that Johnson’s personality could bring to his character.

“He is as emotional and moody and funny and smart as Wiley Boon is,” Greenwald says of Johnson. “I will never, as long as I live, say that he’s easy. But he is good.”

Johnson was the first choice for Greenwald, who had experience turning the star of a TV series into a respected film actor: He was the director who hired Farrah Fawcett to play a battered wife in the acclaimed TV movie “The Burning Bed.”

Johnson is as angry at the press these days as he is at Miami. “Even venerable newspapers are engaging in that journalistic scandal sheet kind of crap,” he says. But he is anxious to publicize his movie, so he recently asked reporters for interviews at his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow.

He says he won’t talk about his relationship with Barbra Streisand, and accuses any reporter who mentions her name of “tabloid-esque” tactics. (It turns out Johnson was saving his Streisand comments for a cover story in US magazine, in which he hints at marriage. And, listen for Streisand’s voice on Johnson’s upcoming album, due out later this year.)

Before the interview, his publicist also makes clear that Johnson will not discuss new allegations appearing in the tabloids about his days of drug and alcohol abuse in the late 1970s--before Patti D’Arbanville, his then-girlfriend and mother of his 5-year-old son, convinced him to enter a substance abuse program in 1983.

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But he is eager to talk about “Sweet Hearts Dance.” He acknowledges that a poignant tale about baby boomer Angst is not exactly what his fans are expecting from the star of a cop show.

“Mostly I was offered body-count pictures,” he says. “That is, if by Page Seven I hadn’t slain 15 people, it wasn’t a Don Johnson movie.”

Greenwald offered him the part in “Sweet Hearts Dance” when he was on the verge of signing onto another film. “I read it, then reread it because I was shocked that it was so good,” Johnson says of the screenplay, written by “On Golden Pond” author Ernest Thompson. “I hadn’t seen that kind of relationship between men in films for a long time.”

“Sweet Hearts Dance” represents the beginning of Johnson’s second stab at a film career. His first began in 1970 when he left West Coast theater to accept the title role in MGM’s “The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart.” The film was panned by both critics and audiences.

During the 1970s, Johnson had mixed success in film and TV. He starred in five TV pilots for NBC, none of which took off. In 1983, he landed the starring role in “Cease Fire,” an independent film about a Vietnam vet that earned him strong critical praise. By the time the film was released in 1985, he had been starring in “Miami Vice” for a year.

In 1985, Johnson again received good reviews for his portrayal as a drifter in the NBC TV movie, “The Long Hot Summer,” an adaptation of William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet.” A year later he recorded an album, “Heartbeat,” that Rolling Stone called “shrewd and seductive, an impeccably produced album.”

“The reason I didn’t do a film the first two seasons is that I didn’t find any material I liked,” Johnson said. “So I did a miniseries, then I chose to make a record.”

Is good material even harder to come by now with “Miami Vice” losing its shimmer in the ratings? “The difficult part for me was to survive the flavor-of-the-month club,” Johnson said. “I can only assume I’ve survived it by the fact that I’m being offered nice films. I still get the covers of magazines and stuff like that.”

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Johnson has just completed work on a second film, “Dead Bang,” a thriller directed by John Frankenheimer (“Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Manchurian Candidate”). Based on the true story of a Los Angeles homicide detective, the film stars Johnson as “a man who is on the edge of emotional bankruptcy,” Frankenheimer said. “We tried very hard to make this character different from Sonny Crockett, (Johnson’s character in “Miami Vice”) . . . “He’s not hip and slick and cool.”

Says Johnson: “Fortunately for me, I haven’t had the kind of problem associated with people who come into the audience’s home every Friday night. When I’m on the street, people don’t say, ‘Hey, Sonny,’ they say, ‘Hey, Don.’ For whatever reason, they’ve been able to separate the character from me.”

But with the filming for “Dead Bang” over, it’s back to Miami for Don Johnson. “I don’t know what my interests will be after this year,” he concedes. “I love the character. He’s constantly evolving and I’m taking him to a new level this year. We have a really enthusiastic new writing staff.

“When we left off, Sonny Crockett was an outlaw and an amnesia victim. Who knows, Sonny Crockett may stay an outlaw. I’m not saying he is. . . . “

Stay tuned. It should be almost as fixating as the turbulent life and times of Don Johnson.


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