In Miami Vice, Don Johnson, as undercover cop Sonny Crockett, tooled around in speedboats and Ferraris, busted gunrunners and dope dealers and somehow made going sockless look good. The hit series transformed what a police procedural could look, sound and feel like — according to Hollywood lore, the show was pitched as "MTV cops" — and made Johnson an international star.
But there is another, perhaps less appreciated contribution to Johnson’s global celebrity, one that predates his recent supporting roles in critically acclaimed films like Knives Out and TV series like Watchmen.
From 1996 to 2001, he played the title character in Nash Bridges, a CBS police procedural that, like “Vice,” was set in a gorgeous city (San Francisco) and featured a buddy cop sidekick — played this time by Cheech Marin, one half of the stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong. Twenty years on, Nash remains one of Johnson’s favourite roles.
“I liked his nimbleness, how he could be funny one moment and dead cold serious the next,” Johnson says on a recent afternoon. “And I was curious to see if I could capture that kind of lightning in a bottle again.”
At first blush, a leading role in the two-hour TV movie revival, Nash Bridges, debuting Saturday on USA, may not seem like the most obvious — or necessary — move for Johnson.
But as with many a CBS procedural, the show’s popularity, and pedigree, belie the relative lack of attention it has received from the chattering classes. At its peak, Bridges had a sweet prime-time slot and a then-and-still-whopping $2 million-an-episode budget, with a weekly audience of more than 8 million viewers. In syndication, the series has found audiences in dozens of countries.
And it’s a trivia lover’s dream, with origins tracing back to writer Hunter S. Thompson.
For Johnson, it is also his first time leading a police procedural in two decades. “I wouldn’t have been so excited about it if I had to write it for someone else,” he said.
Johnson, who wrote the new movie with Bill Chais, based on the original series created by Carlton Cuse, speaks candidly about his reasons for revisiting the ’90s procedural, in a wide-ranging conversation that also touched upon some of the stories from his younger, wilder days. Those reasons included love, money and the curiosity befitting a man who, at 71, is naturally given to reflections on the ways people change — or don’t — over time.
He wanted to know what Nash — an amiable police inspector and amateur magician who patrolled San Francisco in an early 1970s bright yellow Plymouth Barracuda — would be like 20 years down the road. Not that he didn’t have ideas. Ideas derived, perhaps, from his own experience.
“I imagine him to still be very fit, and very capable,” Johnson says of Nash. “I imagine him to be wiser, and more thoughtful about things.”
“He would still slap the crap out you,” he adds, using a cruder term. “But he’d think about it first, and make sure it was coming from a good place.”
The decades since “Vice” first made Johnson a star, in 1984, have given him plenty of material. They have, in fact, been the stuff of legend — not all of which is verifiable, and not all of which he remembers.
He married Melanie Griffith (twice), set a world record in powerboat racing and released two hit singles (one with his then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand). There were struggles with substance abuse, stories of women's underwear virtually raining from open windows. There was Miami in the 1980s.
Along the way, Johnson had five children, including a daughter, Dakota (of the Fifty Shades franchise), who is racking up A-list anecdotes herself these days. More recently, he has undergone a kind of renaissance, transforming himself from a leading man into a versatile character actor, specialising in a kind of winkingly scuzzy, unreconstructed American male in films like Machete (2010) and Django Unchained (2012), and in TV shows like Eastbound & Down (2009-13).
When Johnson first took on the role of Nash Bridges, he had been looking for a change. Despite the structural similarities of “Bridges” and “Vice,” its two lead characters were very different. While Sonny skewed toward the tormented and dour, Nash was upbeat and funny, quick with a snappy line. Johnson appreciated the break.
“I’d just done a stint on Miami Vice for five years, and the show and the character had just gotten darker and darker,” he says. “After a while, it was like, how dark and desolate and without hope can we make Sonny? And I said, ‘I’m not doing that again.’”
The series began as something of a favour to Thompson, the iconoclastic journalist and writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, among other books, who was a neighbour and good friend of Johnson’s in Woody Creek, Colorado, at the time.
“I was hanging out at his house, and he allowed to me that he was broke,” Johnson says. “And I had this 22-episode commitment at CBS. It was probably 3 am in the morning, and I said, ‘Let’s just conjure up something, and I’ll take it to CBS and see if we can get it done.’”
They sketched out an idea about two off-duty cops hired to protect a senator’s wife with Tourette syndrome, called, what else, Off Duty. Later that day, Johnson looked at what the two had wrought.
“It was unmakeable,” says Johnson, who became an executive producer on the eventual show. The premise was rejiggered into a procedural about two on-duty cops who were always getting into mischief with off-hours, get-rich-quick schemes. Johnson had the writers watch the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday to get a taste of the snappy repartee he wanted.
“We were still adjusting the tone of the show through the first order of 12 episodes,” he says. Thompson ended up writing two episodes and making an uncredited cameo as a piano player in the first season.
The show had notable talent above the line. Bridges was the first series Les Moonves greenlit as head of CBS. Cuse, the creator, went on to become a showrunner of Lost, among other series. Writers included Jed Seidel (Terriers, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls”) and Shawn Ryan, the creator of The Shield.
The show garnered strong ratings for six seasons before being unceremoniously dropped in 2001, the result of a dispute between CBS and Paramount, one of the show’s producers. The whole thing “left a sour taste in my mouth,” Johnson says.
The new movie, he said, was one way to remedy that. Johnson has a deep, protective love of the character, so much so that when the actor’s business partners at Village Roadshow, who co-own the rights to Bridges, approached Johnson about reviving the show, he couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Nash.
"When Michael Mann was going to make Miami Vice as a movie, he didn't call me, and I didn't call him," he says. "But I knew it was a mistake, and a no-win situation for Colin Farrell. Because everybody on the planet identified me with that character."
And of course, there were also the financial benefits of bringing back a property that Johnson’s production company owns a big piece of, including a portion of the original show’s 122-episode library.
“If I didn’t think there was something worthy here, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “But there’s no question there was a business component to it.” He hopes the Bridges movie might eventually lead to a series of some sort, or maybe a run of two-hour specials.
In the revival, we catch up with Nash after 20 years — he’s still charming, still in San Francisco. (“We owned the city of San Francisco,” Marin recalled of the experience of shooting the original. “If you’ve gotta own a city, that’s the one to own.”) He and Marin’s character, Inspector Joe Dominguez, have evolved, but not so much that they aren’t befuddled by the changes that millennials and the intervening decades have wrought on the department.
Production began in San Francisco in May. Johnson’s colleagues are quick to talk about what a fun and giving guy he is to work with and for, and the attention to detail he gives to every aspect of the show. “He knows the name of every crew member,” Marin says.
What co-workers won’t do is tell any Don Johnson tales out of school, even those they might have heard thirdhand or seen splashed across a tabloid.
But Johnson will. That story about how he got sent to reform school at the age of 12 after hot-wiring a car? “Yeah, I probably made that up,” he says. The time he was snorting cocaine in the men’s bathroom of a club and ran into Jimi Hendrix? “That was a club in New York called the Hippopotamus,” he explained.
Those wild Vice-era parties at Johnson’s home, where U2 and dozens of models might show up? Well, Johnson couldn’t go out back then. He was the hottest guy on the planet’s hottest show, so the party was brought to him.
“What went on behind closed doors, I have no idea,” he says.
These days, Johnson’s life is a lot more serene. In addition to his hopes for more Bridges, he has plans to do a film for Netflix, and has other projects in the works that he declined to name.
Johnson can pick and choose projects “to a certain extent,” he says, but he still likes to be asked, as he was for Bridges.
“I still like the idea that somebody asked for you,” he says. “I like the idea that someone sends a script and says, ‘We want Don Johnson to do this.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.