Don Quixotic

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

It's 1:30 in the morning, and Don Johnson wants to show you his barge.

"Jimmy, we're going to the barge," Johnson tells his driver as he climbs into the black sedan parked outside the Cypress Club, an upscale restaurant where for the past three hours he's gone through several bottles of wine but not much in the way of solid food--save for an appetizer of tuna tartare.

When he's in San Francisco making "Nash Bridges," his breezy CBS cop show, Johnson has two drivers, a personal assistant, a bodyguard and a houseboy. Of these celebrity basics, the bodyguard is the curious one, for the Beatlemania-like days of "Miami Vice" are a decade old. Then again, to spend time with Johnson is to be with a former bad-boy celebrity who seems a little too eager to prove that, at 49, he's still bad. Every now and then he forgets himself and shows you his intelligence and vulnerability. He interrupts a question about the "last film" he made to warn: "Never say last. Say latest." He sums up his otherwise messed-up rural Missouri childhood with several lines of detail that are disarming for their simplicity: "I had two pairs of bluejeans--everyday and good bluejeans. And one suit to wear to church. A pair of tennis shoes and dress shoes. And everything was clean."

But in Johnson's hands, a two-day interview is mostly a guided tour of machismo and implied debauchery. He picks up a blond at a bar; he peels off two $100 bills for a homeless man; he goes off the record to feed you titillating Hollywood lore, naming names. It's all done with aplomb, maybe too much aplomb; the effort he expends convincing you he's still Don Johnson elicits, finally, sympathy, and what self-respecting bad boy wants to inspire that?

Johnson ends the first night's interview at 4 a.m., the second night's at 4:30 a.m.; by then, he is calling you "Bubba" or "Brother," has played songs on his guitar and shown you his barge. In the end, it is very hard not to like him. The camaraderie he means to establish feels particularly refreshing at a time when stars are run like micromanaged corporations--called Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson and Meg Ryan.

Charming, generous and witty, Johnson is the life of his own party. He sweeps you up into his real-man orbit for 48 hours, talking about himself through a cigarette haze, in a stylized language that seems borrowed from too many cowboy movies ("Life's too short not to enjoy a good bottle of wine," he says, when asked about his drinking).

It's an old-style Hollywood way of talking shared by actor Robert "R.J." Wagner, a friend of Johnson in Aspen, Colo. Johnson has a house in nearby Woody Creek, and he and Wagner play golf, ski and go horseback riding together.

"You can tell a lot about a man [when] he's on a horse," says Wagner of Johnson. "He's a man who lets the horse do what he wants. . . . He has an ability to find a rhythm with an animal. I think that's very revealing of Don."

As night turns into next morning, and the bottles of wine accumulate, Johnson's bluster tends to increase, producing statements like: "There aren't any one of those [expletive] actors that are better than me. None of them. Nobody. Not De Niro, not Brando, not Jack, not anybody. I have the goods. They have the material."

Johnson's career these days is docked at Pier 30, not far from the hulking Bay Bridge. Here, in all its star-power symbolism, rests the barge--a million-dollar floating set that serves as main headquarters on "Nash Bridges," which airs Friday nights at 10. On the show, Johnson plays the head of the Special Investigations Unit of the SFPD, and the barge is a cannery-turned-discotheque, confiscated by the police and reinvented as SIU headquarters.

If Johnson has long been yesterday's news in most corners of the entertainment industry, he's still big enough to throw his weight around in prime-time TV, both as on-screen idol and off-camera headache.

The barge notwithstanding, budgets on "Nash" have swelled in the past to $2.5 million an episode, in part because Johnson gets what he wants artistically, regardless of cost. In addition, Johnson's unpredictable work hours create delays and make shooting around him a necessity (on the set, the initials WFD stand for "Waiting for Don"). Rysher Entertainment, the independent studio bankrolling the show, has employed various methods of cost containment--including, sources say, fining Johnson a substantial amount for every day he's missing from the set--but no one is under the misconception that the star can really be tamed. Johnson takes Fridays off, sometimes to fly to his ranch in Woody Creek.

This all makes for a nerve-racking way to do a show, but the only way if you're in business with Johnson. At CBS, the show's excesses don't matter; "Nash Bridges," with its average 12.5 million viewers, has been a big help to Friday nights, regularly beating NBC's critically acclaimed "Homicide: Life on the Street" and, less often, ABC's "20/20." "Nash," recently renewed for a fifth season, is also the network's youngest-skewing prime-time show, albeit with an average viewer age of 46.

For Rysher, which is now up for sale, spinning a happy ending has proven harder. Eager to be in business with a star of Johnson's magnitude when they agreed to fund his return to television in 1995, the company today, say many, will do well just to break even on "Nash" by the time all of the syndication and overseas rights are sold. Indeed, for many rival TV executives, "Nash Bridges" is a lesson in the dangers of wanting a star in your stable too much.

But Rob Kenneally, Rysher's president of creative affairs, firmly disputes the notion that "Nash" is a money pit and says costs have lately been kept at or under $2 million an episode. "We know we'll make money on the show or we wouldn't continue to do it," he says.

For Johnson, who owns a piece of the series but is earning the bulk of his money upfront (around $150,000 an episode, according to sources), all that profit-loss stuff is for the suits in L.A. to worry about.

"I live in the now," he says, without apology.

At this moment, living in the now entails stepping out of the car and climbing around the pier's locked gate (a maneuver that requires your butt to dangle over the water and seems more dangerous than any of the stunts Johnson performs on TV). He waits for you to catch up and get a good glimpse of the barge, which is, in a sense, wonderful--a 200-foot-long steel and glass structure, a hodgepodge of shapes and angles dreamed up by Johnson and "Nash" production designer Michael Helmi.

Since arriving in San Francisco four years ago as a Hollywood interloper with a much-traveled reputation, Johnson has marked his territory here in other ways, too. He has injected millions upon millions into the local economy and befriended various prominent San Franciscans, including Mayor Willie Brown and former debutante Kelley Phleger, Johnson's fiancee. Until they find more permanent quarters, the couple live in a two-story suite at the St. Francis Hotel, a duplex in the old wing occupied in another era by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

For all these reasons and more, the city, it would seem, is Johnson's--which is why it makes perfect sense that the actor, needing to pee, walks to the edge of the pier and takes a leak into the bay. Jimmy has the engine running, waiting. It's going on 2 a.m. For Johnson, the night is still young.

*

"Don hasn't done an interview like this in 10 years," Elliot Mintz, Johnson's longtime publicist, has said over the phone.

The itinerary for the interview in San Francisco underscores the point: You are to meet Don at the St. Francis Hotel on Sunday afternoon at 4:30. You will go for a walk. After the walk, you will go your separate ways and reconvene at 7:30 for a private dinner at the Cypress Club, a piano bar/restaurant on the edge of the Financial District, where Don likes to eat.

Save for a flurry of obligatory interviews when "Nash Bridges" premiered as a midseason entry in 1996, Johnson, long a poster boy for celebrity excess, has understandably bridled at talking to the press. Reporters have shown up in San Francisco for stories, kind ones about "Nash Bridges," and he's given them the brushoff. The media's interest in him, he figures, is mostly limited to his girlfriends,his children and his drinking. It's a relationship predicated on an insult: that Johnson's acting talent and work are subjects hardly worth discussing.

According to Mintz, who approached The Times for this story, Johnson gets 200 requests a week--for interviews, for personal appearances, for help with charities. But there is also evidence to suggest that media interest in the star has flagged. Indeed, 10 years after "Vice" left the air, it has come to this: Don Johnson complains that he can't get on the cover of TV Guide. His film career, barring a turnaround, appears to have peaked in 1975, with the cult classic "A Boy and His Dog." There hasn't even been much interest in a tell-all autobiography, and Johnson has a lot to tell.

And so, with "Nash Bridges" long established and nothing compelling to plug (there's a movie, "Goodbye, Lover," due out in April, but it's not about to reinvent his image), why did he solicit this interview?

The question is posed to Johnson early on; he keeps returning to the issue, until it becomes a kind of existential meditation on self and celebrity.

"I don't agree with the concept that if you're a public figure that you owe your soul to the company store," he says. " . . . The problem is, the hunger for gossip and media and all that stuff has gone beyond the front doors. And I hadn't given an interview like [this] in 10 years. I think there's a legitimate request for it. People wanna know how I feel about what I'm doing. Am I happy? Am I unhappy? How do I feel about the show?"

Later, though, he gives a different answer: "I don't know why I'm doing this interview. . . . I know that I have to, but I don't know why that is."

Several hours earlier, Johnson had emerged from the upstairs portion of his St. Francis suite to commence the interview, a Jack Russell terrier puppy (Francis, named for the hotel) in tow.

Soon, fiancee Phleger joins him in the wood-paneled living room, where the only personal touches are photographs--of Phleger and Johnson, of Johnson's children, of Phleger with Johnson and his children (in addition to 9-year-old Dakota, the daughter he had with Melanie Griffith, he has a 16-year-old son, Jesse, from his marriage to Patti D'Arbanville, and keeps in contact with Alexander, Griffith's 13-year-old son from her marriage to actor Steven Bauer).

Dressed casually, in an oversized sweater and leggings, Phleger is tall, brunet, attractive, "but not an actress," Johnson says, exaggerating his relief to comic effect. Phleger, 30, raised in the tony Bay Area enclave of Woodside, teaches nursery school at a Montessori school run out of the home of Ann Getty, wife of Gordon Getty, J. Paul's son.

Phleger listens now as Johnson spins their initial encounter at a birthday party two years ago for Mayor Brown. "I basically kidnap her to the bar," Johnson says. "For 35, 40 minutes I stood there and just made her tell me her life story. And at the end I said, 'Oh, by the way, I'm gonna marry you.' "

Phleger grins wearily at Johnson's macho histrionics and acknowledges the juicy component to their relationship ("The pirate and the debutante," she says). In any event, Phleger excuses herself shortly thereafter. Johnson has done most of the talking for her, anyway. Later that night, at a bar, Johnson pulls out a fresh handkerchief to blow his nose. This, he says, holding up the handkerchief, is what makes Phleger special--the way she cares for him.

"That woman doesn't care about anything else in the world except me," he says. "And her love for me and my love for her and our babies. My babies, with any of my other relationships. She's an angel woman."

*

Cheech Marin's eyes keep wandering. On this Monday afternoon, "Nash Bridges" is shooting at an apartment in the South of Market section of San Francisco that's doubling as the headquarters of a high-priced call-girl ring. Women mill about in thong bikinis, and Marin says: "I knew some of the things that Donnie was up against. There's a certain Newtonian law about fame being equal to the intensity of your downfall."

For Marin, 52, "Nash" arrived as the "gig from heaven." The days when Marin was one-half of the comedy team Cheech & Chong were followed, he says, by the most depressing of his career. Now Marin shows up, nails his lines as Nash's partner, Joe Dominguez, and collects a hefty check.

He's resettled his family from Los Angeles to a house in the Seacliff section of San Francisco, and he likes to tell Johnson, "If you'd thought this thing through a little bit more, you'd have my job." It's said in jest, but there's a harder truth underneath--that the star can't take this ride easily.

Johnson says he was goaded into going back to television by pal Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist. "The Doctor," says Johnson, told him he was an "icon," misused and underappreciated by movie people. To be sure, the post-"Miami Vice" days had seen him make a string of forgettable films that eroded the huge momentum he had coming out of "Vice" in 1989. While Bruce Willis (after "Moonlighting") became the smug cowboy of choice for the action blockbuster of the 1990s, Johnson was misfiring at the box office and in his personal life as well (another aborted marriage to two-time ex-wife Griffith and a layover at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994).

By the end of it all, there was a sobering fact staring him in his still-pretty face: Johnson would turn 50 before the end of the millennium.

A return to TV suddenly seemed the prudent financial move, and Johnson hoped to do it with a word he uses a lot--dignity. It was a move he'd been inching toward; in 1995, Johnson served as one of the executive producers on "The Marshal," an ABC crime series. In "Nash Bridges," which is scripted and edited in L.A. under the direction of executive producer Carlton Cuse, Johnson doesn't chase after bad guys and he rarely fights; like a throwback to a Jim Rockford or Barnaby Jones, he's more at home questioning scumbags, using his charm and world-weariness to break them down. Yeah, he drives the Barracuda, but the joke is he's tooling around the city, kibitzing with partner Joe Dominguez about fatherhood, ex-wives, what have you.

"I think maybe Don is at a turning point in his career," says a source on the show, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He can't just live on his cute good looks that he had in 'Vice.' He now has to provide something else to package with his personality."

But for all its success, "Nash"--in which Johnson dresses in collarless shirts and spiffy jacket-and-vest ensembles--isn't prompting anyone to take him more seriously. Some of Johnson's friends and former associates look at the show and can't believe he's not bored. These are people, incidentally, who say that one of the best-kept secrets about Johnson is that he's a terrific actor. They also point to his keen artistic and business instincts. They note that Johnson was one of the original celebrity investors in Planet Hollywood and that he bought a home outside Aspen before it became trendy to shun Hollywood for a multi-acre nature retreat--largely because, as a protective father, he wanted his kids raised outside the milieu that defined his own dysfunction.

Given these qualities, then, why is Johnson on a TV series that leaves many to view him still as a cartoon? Whichever factor you choose--substance abuse, vanity, bad career choices--mostly it gets back to this: Don Johnson can't stop being . . . well, Don Johnson.

That inner restlessness and the effect it has on those around him is forever in evidence. You can see it when Johnson dines at the Cypress Club, a favorite haunt, where there's a playful tension with the overly solicitous wait staff.

Similarly, on the set of "Nash Bridges," the good cheer has an eerie weightiness to it; no matter how far behind schedule Johnson puts them, or how ornery he is, the crew is determined to stay positive. Johnson runs the show, says a crew member, like an autocratic tyrant, "but not everybody who is an autocratic tyrant is as, let's say, dangerous as Don can be in some of his moods sometimes."

It's not unlike that "Twilight Zone" episode where the local townsfolk live in fear of a moody little boy with special mental powers. "They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, the monster can send them into the cornfield," Rod Serling's narration goes, and so it goes at "Nash," where displeasing Johnson can entail "going to the bus" (not to be confused with "riding the bus," the crew's euphemism for Johnson's bedding of guest actresses).

The bus is Johnson's home away from home on the set, equipped with television, kitchen and couches. "It's one of the ways that he gives creative input," says someone who has gone to the bus several times. ". . . Basically, you sit there and he yells at you."

"Yeah, I can scream," Johnson says of his reputation on the set. "I am difficult; you know why? Because I ask the question, 'Why?' That connotates difficult. Studios and directors don't want to be asked why. They just want you to do. Well, you know what, boys? I got a little problem with that."

A series like "Nash Bridges" could be done more cheaply in L.A. or Canada. But early on, Johnson liked the idea of making San Francisco a genuine backdrop. "Nash" has the barge and several sound stages on Treasure Island. Add to the production costs the fees Rysher is paying the show's three name actors (Johnson, Marin and former "Baywatch" babe Yasmine Bleeth) and you get a sense of the fiscal heights "Nash" can scale.

And yet there is an aesthetic at work here. Johnson can expound on his interest in deconstructionist architecture, in the functional disorder of things. Nash lives in an earthquake-damaged loft, with what Johnson calls "a wound" for a front door. His office is essentially a space fashioned on the run--the barge--and the camera is frequently tilted, to mirror the idea that Nash's life is always on the verge of tipping over.

"It may not be the trendiest show, and we're not up there with David Kelley getting awards, but the show has got a very loyal following," says executive producer Cuse.

*

A veteran TV writer who last created the western "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." on Fox in 1993, Cuse was tapped by newly installed CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves to collaborate with Johnson on a pilot in 1995. By then, Johnson had already gone through lots of Rysher's money with four other writer-producers and a dozen scripts, so Cuse had every reason to be skeptical when Johnson helicoptered him onto the Arizona set of "Tin Cup" for a meeting.

Johnson greeted Cuse with similar skepticism. None of these Hollywood writer guys, it seemed, could see the genius in Hunter Thompson's concept--that Johnson play an off-duty cop guarding a society woman with Tourette's syndrome.

Ted Mann was among the writer-producers brought in initially to flesh out a Johnson show. Mann, whose writing credits include the highly respected prime-time dramas "Law & Order" and "NYPD Blue," wanted Johnson in a gritty, real-life cop role. Eventually Mann decided he and the star weren't on the same page.

"He couldn't bring himself to live on television on a policeman's income," Mann says. "To drive what a policeman drives and wear what a policeman wears. . . . He drifted back to what was familiar to him, the stylized stuff of 'Miami Vice.' It was a security blanket for him."

Cuse, in a sense, is the last man standing, and not just because the "Nash" executive producer went through three different arbitration hearings with the Writers Guild of America before finally earning sole created-by credit on the show. What he and Johnson have done, Cuse says, is successfully tweak a genre--the '70s action cop show--long considered dead.

On "Nash Bridges," Johnson boasts, he "free-drives the 'cuda," meaning they don't use steady cameras or tow Nash's mint-condition 1970 yellow Plymouth Barracuda convertible to shoot driving scenes. Instead, Johnson veers the car right up alongside another truck, called a "shot maker," and does his dialogue while keeping his car at a steady clip.

Occasionally--when Johnson has temporarily exhausted the topic of Don Johnson--the subject drifts to his childhood. His mother was 16 when she gave birth to him in a house in Flatt Creek, Mo. His parents divorced when he was 11, and at 12, Johnson was arrested for hot-wiring cars and sent to reform school. After about a year at the Lake Afton Home for Boys he was sent to live with his father, who had remarried and moved to East Wichita, Kan. At 16, Johnson says, he left home and was living in town with a stripper. Eventually, he finished high school and earned a scholarship to study drama at the University of Kansas--becoming, he says, the first person in his family to graduate high school and make it to college.

It is tempting to take this turbulent, restless childhood and connect the dots to Johnson's turbulent, restless adulthood. Ultimately, though, it's hard to play armchair therapist. Asked about his late mother, Johnson gives few concrete details, save for the fact that she was a beautician.

"My mother was a convincing contradiction," he says. "Free fall, poetry and chaos." He pauses. "I can't describe it any better than that."

Johnson arrived in Hollywood, then, with a small-town naivete. But he also had a face that, in the words of his former lover and celebrity groupie Pamela Des Barres, "could have prevented World War II." It was a good time to have such a face--the early 1970s, the heyday of a new Hollywood chronicled in Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." Amid the anything-goes L.A. party scene, Johnson did well socially (he took up with a then-14-year-old Melanie Griffith), but not so well professionally.

"He didn't have the look of the dark, brooding antihero of the 1960s and '70s, like Pacino or De Niro," says Anthony Yerkovich, who created "Miami Vice." "He was a fair-haired Midwesterner."

Of the dozen films Johnson made before "Miami Vice," "A Boy and His Dog," a low-budget feature shot outside Barstow, is the one people seem to remember. Adapted from a short story by Harlan Ellison, the film is set in the post-holocaust year 2024. Johnson roams the scorched Earth with his telepathic dog, and the relationship works as follows: Johnson sniffs out food for the dog; the dog sniffs out women for Johnson.

By the time "Miami Vice" rolled around in the mid-1980s, Johnson was what NBC executives referred to as a "six-time loser," meaning he'd made six failed pilots.

"There's a certain transience to Don that was perfect for 'Vice,"' says Michael Mann, the filmmaker who, as executive producer on "Miami Vice," is credited with giving the show its seminal look and style.

But the transience that served Johnson so well on "Vice" muddled his ensuing film career. Johnson tried some of everything, including understated drama ("Sweet Hearts Dance" in 1988, "Paradise" in '91), romantic comedy (1993's "Born Yesterday") and movies like "The Hot Spot" in 1990 and 1993's "Guilty as Sin," in which he traded on his bad-boy villainy.

"It's hard when you're typecast to get the right parts," says Ron Shelton, who directed Johnson in 1996's "Tin Cup," in a role that wisely merged two of the actor's more passionate pursuits: narcissism and golf.

"I'd never met Don, and I thought it was an intriguing idea, because he had this enormous screen personality, but [he] had never been used outside of television very interestingly."

Johnson, adds Michael Mann, could still have a career as a quality character actor, if not a star. It only takes one "Boogie Nights" to have the kind of credibility turnaround enjoyed by Burt Reynolds.

Until that day comes, Johnson exists in a kind of limbo state--somewhere between the young stud that he was and the aging actor that he is today. Sometimes, the two selves collide.

At the St. Francis, Johnson uses a private elevator to avoid the crowded lobby when he goes out. One evening, the elevator opens to reveal a group of Brazilian teenagers camped out in the foyer. They're not staking out Johnson; in fact, they don't seem to recognize the star. But Johnson, chin up and seizing the moment, begins grabbing Instamatics and offering himself up all the same.

"You walk out there on that street right now, go up to two people, ask them what they feel about Don Johnson," Johnson says. "You got a 50-50 chance of someone saying, 'Who?' and the other person saying, 'He's a god.' "

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