Don Johnson talks 'intoxicating' fame of 'Miami Vice,' Melanie Griffith collaborations, unsavory villains and more

Don Johnson in, from left, A Boy and His Dog, Miami Vice and Django Unchained. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Don Johnson in, from left, A Boy and His Dog, Miami Vice and Django Unchained. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Don Johnson never had to make a comeback. He never went anywhere.

When he wasn’t on TV (Miami Vice, the breakout role that made him the 80s “Mr. Cool”), he was in movies (working with ex Melanie Griffith in Paradise and Born Yesterday). When he wasn’t in movies (working with Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Tin Cup), he was back on TV (Nash Bridges, his return to the same CBS Friday night time slot he had with Miami Vice).

But there’s no question Johnson seems to be on a hot streak over the past decade or so, at least when it comes to some of the industry’s most celebrated creators dialing him up. Robert Rodriguez teamed him with Robert De Niro for the Mexploitation sensation Machete (2010). Quentin Tarantino enlisted him for his Oscar-winning revenge thriller Django Unchained (2012). Damon Lindelof twisted him to HBO’s much-watched Watchmen (2019). Rian Johnson hitched him to Jamie Lee Curtis for the whodunit revival Knives Out (2019). (In three of those, curiously Johnson plays the archetype of unsavory, aging white supremacist, a coincidence that Johnson shares a theory about later in this interview.)

Don Johnson in “High Heat.” (Saban Films)
Don Johnson in High Heat. (Saban Films)

Maybe that’s why Johnson is paying it back. Even if the 73-year-old Missouri native admits he joined his latest film, the Zach Golden-directed Top Chef-meets-Taken thriller High Heat starring Olga Kurylenko, in part because he could complete his whole part in three days.

“I'm just gonna tell you straight up, I liked the premise, I had a hole in my schedule and they said, ‘We can get you in and out in three days,’” Johnson laughs. “But I like helping young directors, guys that are out there grinding it out. I like stepping in and helping them out because I’ve got a wealth of information in here from five decades of making movies and television and plays and musicals and so on and so forth. I have a lot to share and I wanna share it.”

Johnson also shared a wealth of stories with Yahoo Entertainment for this latest edition of Role Recall…

On making his film debut in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), in which he played a film student experiencing a sexual awakening while studying in New York:

“That was my very first film. I got my Screen Actors Guild card with that film. Martin Poll, who had produced the Academy Award-winning The Lion and Winter the previous year, was producing it. And so I felt pretty damn good about the company I was in… And that being my first film, and the first time I'd ever been to New York City, my first thought was, ‘What the f—k were these people thinking?’ You know, you see images of New York City, but until you get there and you actually feel the awesome majesty of it, you can't really know what it's like. We had all of Andy Warhol's Factory people in it, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro. I think Andy even made a pass through one of the parties. And so I got to meet all those guys and hang out with Andy quite a bit. It was part of my eye-opening education to the world of film and many, many other things [laughs].

“Looking back, the movie was kind of courageous in a strange way. That movie had a chance, the problem with it was there were three presidents at MGM from the time I signed onto the role to when the film came out. And of course, the rule of thumb in Hollywood is that if you take over a studio position as the president, you want nothing to do with the predecessors’ [projects]. Stanley Sweetheart wasn't a very good film, but it also got an ‘excuse me’ release. You know, ‘How quickly can we fulfill our commitment contractually and move this along?’”

On his breakout role in the future cult classic A Boy and His Dog (1975), about a teen and his telepathic pup in a post-apocalyptic wasteland:

“That was when I first realized that I could be a filmmaker. The writer and director, L.Q. Jones, was a big character actor for Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch movies and stuff like that. And he was a fantastic guy. He adapted this amazing script from a Harlan Ellison's novella and we went up to Death Valley [to film]. It was a movie with a talking dog [laughs]. The dog of course did not talk, but he did in my head and [through] the script supervisor… And we basically just figured it out on our own, how can we make this realistic? So I sort of took the lead in setting the tone and setting the relationship with the dog so that you would buy it, so that it was believable. And that required learning the language of cameras and film and so on and so forth. It was an awesome experience. I loved it. And I actually think it still holds up. The problem with the movie is that we made it for such a cheap budget that we didn't actually have the lighting packages that we needed to shoot at night. And a lot of it was shot at night, and you just can't see anything in the movie. But apparently, when you have a narrative and you attach to a character and you're buying the narrative, it doesn't matter what it looks like.”

On how a sailfish ultimately decided if he’d go out for what would be his life-changing turn as cop Sonny Crockett in opposite Philip Michael Thomas’s Rico Tubbs in Miami Vice (1984-1989):

“I was fishing with my good friend Dickey Bets from the Allman Brothers Band. We were sailfishing off [the coast of] Stuart, Florida. I had just finished making an independent movie in Miami [1985’s Ceasefire] and I got a call shipped to shore from my agent. By the way, I'd met with the folks from Universal and I'd made a few pilots for NBC that were unsuccessful… My agent said, ‘They want you to come in and audition for this. And I said, ‘I'm not doing that. I'm fishing, I'm not gonna stop fishing, get on a plane, fly back to L.A. and go in and entertain [NBC executive] Brandon Tartikoff, just not gonna do it.’ He said, ‘Don, if you do this, you're probably gonna get this part.’ And I said, ‘I've auditioned for these people. They've got tons of film on me. Tell 'em to make a decision.’ And he said, ‘There's a ticket at the airport, I advise you to get on the plane and come back.’ So I went out and on the back of the deck, I had a fish on the line at the time. And the fish was tail walking and spitting and trying to throw the hook and everything. And I said, ‘Well, if I boat this fish, maybe I'll go.’ And I boated the fish, and it was a really nice sailfish. So I got on a plane that night and went to L.A. and met the next day with Brandon Tartikoff.”

On how they landed on Sonny’s iconic fashion sense:

“That was all a function of Jodi Tillen, the costume designer. She went to Italy, bought up a bunch of stuff and pulled it off the models’ backs and then brought it to us… Sonny Crockett was based on my personal experiences with seeing these kinds of dudes around, the drug dealers with big watches and fancy cars, and so on and so forth. Excuse me. And the function of the heat. It was just so fucking hot that I put a T-shirt on, no belt, no socks, the lightest weight shoes I could find. And I've pushed the sleeves up on the jacket because it was so hot. So the look [was basically] form following function.”

On the excitement and perils of massive television fame at the time, and why he left Miami Vice after five seasons:

“No one can be prepared for that. It was exhilarating. It was exciting. I mean, I think for all actors, part of the reason we get into the business in the first place is for adulation and to fill a void that we can only fill by creating these characters and telling these stories and having people appreciate them. So that kind of success is super intoxicating. And it can also be a career killer, that kind of white hot fame in an identifiable character… That kind of fame is debilitating sometimes. When we got to the end of the fifth season, obviously Universal wanted me to make more episodes. They basically said, ‘You can do it anyway you want. You can do two-hour movies if you want. You can do all this.’ And I just said, ‘You know what? This is done. This character's been done. We've told every possible story that you can imagine. I have fatigue [from] playing the character. And I imagine that we're messing with fire if we continue to throw this out there. It would've still sold soap. But I'm not so sure that there would've been much for me beyond that.”

On coming to early terms with Mickey Rourke on the dark buddy action drama Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991):

“The best story I have about Mickey Rourke is that Mickey Rourke and I made an agreement. On the very first day, we were doing hair and makeup test… He had his whole entourage there… And so I went in to do a test, and they said, ‘Oh, do you mind waiting for a minute? We wanna bring Mickey in.’ And so I stood in there and I was waiting and waiting and waiting, and Mickey didn't show up. I finally left. And then Mickey came in and they said, ‘Oh, he's here now. Do you mind coming back?’ And I [said], ‘F—k him. I'm not coming back.’ And so I thought about it for a second. I said, ‘This is going to go very badly.’ So I walked over to Mickey's trailer and knocked on the door. I said, ‘Can you ask all these guys to leave? I wanna talk to you.’ And he looked at me, he was kind of surprised. He told all of his guys to leave. And I sat down and I said, ‘Listen, you and I are pros. We can put this film behind schedule in about a nanosecond, or we can agree not to keep each other waiting, ever, and to do our best work to make the best out of this that we can.’ And from that moment on, we raced to get to the set when we were called. And it showed, it showed in our relationship. It was a lot of fun to make [that] with Mickey. Mickey's a wonderful actor. Wonderful. He can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

On working with ex-wife Melanie Griffith in consecutive movies, the family drama Paradise (1991) and the rom-com Born Yesterday (1993):

“That was a big deal. And I liked the opportunity to play those two different characters. I thought Paradise was a beautiful movie. It was kind of like Juno, a smaller, more intimate heart movies. And Born Yesterday was challenging because it was meant to be a comedy and to a great extent we got there. I think it was challenging because we had a director [Luis Mandoki] who was of Hungarian descent, born in Mexico. Wonderful director, fantastic director. But I think the material and the tone, it was unfocused, let me put it that way. Even though the experience was a fantastic experience, and Melanie and I did pretty good job together given the fact that we would work all day together and then go home and be together with our kids and each other at night. It was exhilarating and challenging at the same time.”

On how his golfing skills landed him opposite Kevin Costner in Tin Cup (1996):

“They were already in Arizona, getting ready to go. And I think the actor that they had envisioned for David Simms couldn't play golf or something like that. It suddenly dawned on them, ‘Oh, s—t, we're gonna have to have an actor that can act and swing a golf club and make it look believable.’ So I get this call from Kevin and [the director Ron Shelton]. And they said, ‘Hey, will you come down and help us out?’ I said, ‘Sure, let me take a look.’ And I read the script. I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ And I like Kevin. He's a gifted guy. And Ron Shelton is fantastic. He's a dude's dude. So it wasn't really orchestrated, but I like the way it turned out.”

On cooking up his second hit cop show Nash Bridges(1996-2001) with an unlikely collaborator, famed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson:

“Hunter Thompson was my neighbor and my brother. And not in that order. He was my brother first, and then he happened to be my neighbor, and I loved him. We had a special relationship. Over one of our, uh, late nights, we had conjured up an idea for a movie that I happened to mention to Jeff Sagansky when he was the president of CBS. And he just loved the idea of me doing something with Hunter Thompson and gave me an unsolicited commitment of 22 episodes on the air. That may be one of the last deals of that kind that was ever made. At any rate, Sagansky left [CBS], and the script that Hunter and I were working on turned out terrible. So we took the basic core idea and I brought in Carlton Cuse. And Carlton did a decent version of taking the basic concept and turning it into Nash Bridges. And then I was able to insert Hunter into future episodes. And whenever I was with him, we'd come up with that crazy stuff. But I didn't have a studio. I answered to no one. It was just me and Carlton and [as executive producer] I delivered [the cut] every Thursday night at 1 o'clock in the morning. And on Friday night at 10 o'clock it aired. So we got away with murder, and made a really fun show.”

On playing against-type as white supremacists in projects led by people of color, Machete (2010), Django Unchained (2012) and Watchmen (2019):

“Sometimes things just occur. It just becomes one of those things. I don't know this to be a fact, but if I had to speculate, um, I would say that [because of] my relationship with all different [people of different] ethnicities and races, people have a sense of how you are, whether you carry animosity or prejudice, or you don't. And I think that my relationship with Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice showed my colors and, and people in both communities Black and white said, ‘That's cool.’ I was a stickler about not allowing anything [involving] racial overtones in [Miami Vice]. I said, ‘That's cheap entertainment. We're not doing that.’ And so I eliminated any kind of in racial stereotyping in the storytelling, even though we got accused of it to a certain degree, [when it came to portrayals of] Colombians and Venezuelans and so on and so forth. But basically we were just taking the headlines out of the papers and recreating the stories based around the headlines. People sense when you’re coming from a place of awareness. And when you're not. And so perhaps that had something to do with it, but like I said, it's just pure speculation.”

On bonding with the cast of Knives Out (2019):

It was fantastic. We had these massive trailers, 250 yards from that big house. But it was so cold in Boston and none of us wanted to leave the house to get in a car to go down to our trailers, only to just turn around and come back up when they were finished lighting. So we went down into a room that I promise you was like the size of a big jail cell, like a big holding cell. And we had a space heater in the middle. And so we had Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, me, and Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie Lee Curtis basically took over the house. She'd be making soup upstairs in the kitchen, and then we'd all be down there in this room and just telling war stories. Just laughing and telling stories and jokes. And it was the best time.”

High Heat is now in theaters, on digital and on demand.

Watch the trailer: