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Obituaries

‘Airwolf’ actor Jan-Michael Vincent dies; career derailed by drugs and alcohol

CA.Vincent.tree.0725.AAG––Actor Jan–Michael Vincent sits in the backyard of his Coto de Caza home as
Jan-Michael Vincent in the backyard of his Coto de Caza home in Orange County in 1998.
(Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)

Jan-Michael Vincent, a golden boy of Hollywood action films in the 1970s who starred in the mid-1980s TV adventure series “Airwolf” but saw his career crater amid drug and alcohol addiction, has died in Asheville, N.C.

The actor’s Feb. 10 death — which was not publicly announced at the time — was confirmed by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, which provided a death certificate listing the cause as cardiac arrest. He was 74 by most accounts, but the certificate listed him as 73.

With a surfer’s physique and charisma, Vincent entered films in the late 1960s and became a mainstay of action dramas. He was the hitman apprentice to Charles Bronson in “The Mechanic” (1972) and a handsome young stuntman in “Hooper” (1978), with Burt Reynolds as an aging one.

A rare departure from form was “Buster and Billie” (1974), an unsentimental look at 1940s high school students in rural Georgia, with Vincent giving an understated performance as the local jock who breaks with social conformity and expectations — with violent results.

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His biggest breakthrough was the male ingenue part in the ABC miniseries “The Winds of War” (1983), based on Herman Wouk’s bestselling novel set during World War II. He played a son of Robert Mitchum’s naval officer and the love interest of Ali MacGraw’s character.

The 18-hour program averaged tens of millions of viewers over the course of its broadcast, rivaling Alex Haley’s “Roots” in popularity. The next year, Vincent premiered in CBS’s action series “Airwolf” as Stringfellow Hawke, the moody pilot of a supersonic helicopter; Ernest Borgnine co-starred as an older pilot.

While on the show, where he earned a reported salary of $40,000 per episode, Vincent spoke of addictions that for years had kept him off the A-list of movie roles. His erratic behavior and cocaine consumption was a major reason “Airwolf” was canceled in 1986.

His screen credits dwindled amid a series of arrests for drunken driving and barroom altercations.

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“A lot of my problems have been simply that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the actor told an Australian newspaper the Sunday Mail in 1987.

In 1996, Vincent was in a car crash that severely injured a passenger — a female domestic worker in his home — while he suffered a broken neck and damaged vocal cords that left him with a permanent rasp to his voice. Over the years, various women, including his second wife, accused him of physical assault.

CA.0814.Wednesday1 ––BIG WEDNESDAY –– B/W handout photo of L–R: Gary Busey, Patti D’Arbanville, Will
From left, Gary Busey, Patti D'Arbanville, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan-Michael Vincent in a scene from the surf film "Big Wednesday."
(Warner Bros. Inc.)

His right leg was partially amputated in 2012 amid complications from peripheral artery disease. As recently as 2014, he’d spoken of his continuing trouble with alcohol and owing $70,000 in back taxes.

Jan-Michael Vincent was born in Denver on July 15, 1944 — his death certificate says 1945 — and grew up in Hanford in the central San Joaquin Valley, where his parents owned a billboard company. He told People magazine that he had little patience for an office job and that after high school graduation in 1963, when his father tried to strong-arm him into joining the business, “I put my surfboard in the car and left.”

He settled in Ventura, where he surfed and attended Ventura College for three years. He said he would have completed college, but the registration clerk literally shut the window in his face for the lunch hour and Vincent instead took his $200 and went to Mexico to party.

He had just served a stint in the California National Guard when a casting agent, marveling at his good looks, got him a contract with Universal Studios. By the late 1960s, he was appearing on “Dragnet,” “Lassie,” “Bonanza” and the prime-time soap opera “The Survivors,” among other TV shows.

He won a supporting part in the John Wayne western “The Undefeated” (1969), then a co-starring role opposite Mitchum in “Going Home” (1971), as a troubled young man.

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Vincent later appeared in Disney’s “The World’s Greatest Athlete” (1973), opposite Tim Conway, and “Big Wednesday” (1978), a drama about surfers facing the prospect of going to fight in Vietnam. Increasingly too drunk to remember his lines, he ended his career in D-grade fare such as “Rave Nerve” (1991), featuring former porn actress Traci Lords, and “White Boy” (2002), a gang-warfare story.

His marriages to Bonnie Poorman and Joanne Robinson ended in divorce. For years, he was estranged from his only child, Amber, a daughter from his first marriage. He had a home in Mississippi with his third wife, the former Patricia Christ. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

When interviewed a few years ago by an Australian TV reporter, Vincent said he struggled to recall much of anything about his career or the accidents that may have contributed to his failing memory. “I’m just laying low,” he said.

Bernstein writes for the Washington Post


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