Wednesday 22 May 2019

Don Johnson: I gave up my vices to be with a teacher

Actor Don Johnson and wife Kelley Phleger
Actor Don Johnson and wife Kelley Phleger

Kevin Maher

A ranch, a boat, a plane, 20 cars — the ‘Miami Vice’ star had it all, but he was intensely unhappy about life

‘Time to bring in the dancing girls!” That’s how Don Johnson, former ‘80s icon, TV megastar and so-called ladies’ man, greets me as I walk through the door. The 64-year-old actor, ensconced in the basement reading room of a central hotel, releases a low, throaty chuckle. He’s clearly aware that his reputation as one-time party boy and hedonistic babe magnet precedes him.

And, sure enough, within 20 minutes, we’re knee-deep in the excesses of “the Miami Vice days”, when Johnson’s designer-clad cop show was broadcast to 130 countries around the world and the actor was the toast of “super-exclusive” Florida parties filled with “politicians, state senators, drug dealers, police and the best-looking hookers in the business”.

“And, at first, I was like, ‘Oh, so everybody knows everybody?’ For years, I’d been concerned about carrying drugs around, and

all these motherf***ers, police included, are carrying drugs around? And their drugs are better than mine?! Hahahaha!”

Even back then, when he stayed in, Johnson could never settle for a quiet night in front of the box. “There were five modelling agencies in Miami and I would invite five models from each agency, and three or four male friends,” he says, grinning. “And, um . . .” He pauses here, searching for the right words for a delicate subject, before settling on: “We had a lot of fun!” Johnson laughs again.

He could be describing the exploits of a complete stranger. In fact, he often is, and occasionally speaks of himself in the third person, saying: “The urban legends around Don Johnson are crazy.” For it quickly transpires that there are two Don Johnsons in the room.

One is the ‘80s relic who, as Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett, brought designer stubble and pastel T-shirts under Versace jackets to the world, became a global pin-up, dated Barbra Streisand once, married Melanie Griffith twice, had another hit cop show in the late 1990s in Nash Bridges, then struggled throughout the next decade with substance abuse, conspicuous career failure (see the 2008 Norwegian comedy Long Flat Balls II — or not) and a ballooning “fat Elvis” period (“When I looked in the mirror I saw a fat guy and, in my business, that’s like suicide”).

The other Don Johnson, however, is this guy. Trim, tanned and athletic-looking in trainers, jeans and deep-azure sweatshirt (truthfully, the best-looking man I’ve seen all year). He chugs briefly on an electronic cigarette and is otherwise entirely vice-free.

He takes the croutons out of salads. He’ll go to the gym after our conversation. He loves his wife, a Montessori schoolteacher called Kelley Phleger, and their three children. He has sold most of his more ostentatious possessions (“The 20 cars, the ranch in Colorado and the things that once defined Don Johnson”).

And his career? His career is doing very nicely, thank you very much. For after stealing the show as a racist vigilante in Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 action flick Machete and creating one of the most memorable characters in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (he played dyspeptic plantation owner Big Daddy), Johnson is back centre-stage as a cowboy detective in the brilliantly demented western noir, Cold in July.

In the movie, Johnson teams up with Sam Shepard’s grizzled ex-con and Michael C Hall’s timid homeowner for a seemingly simple missing persons’ case that soon twists and turns its way through police corruption, local mafia involvement and the darker extremes of the porn industry.

He says today that he cannot disentangle his recent successful performances from his new way of being. It transpires that the new Don Johnson was born on the deck of his Aspen ranch in the late Noughties, after he looked around at his wealth — his boats, his plane, his houses — and realised that he was utterly miserable. “I had what everyone assumes are the elements that make you happy, and I was intensely unhappy,” he says.

He speaks at length about his process of recovery, which seems to involve a world view that’s part-Buddhist, part-New Age self-help, but is fundamentally concerned with the eradication of, well, fear. He was raised in fear, for instance, and poverty, in Flat Creek, Missouri, by a father, Wayne, who was 19 at the time of his birth (his mother was 17) and who was a firm advocate of expressing anger through corporal punishment.

Johnson, always beautiful, lost his virginity to his 16-year-old babysitter when he was 12. He studied acting at the University of Kansas and, at 18, began dating his 29-year-old acting teacher, but left in the same year to join the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He immediately found work in theatre and film, most notably as the star of the dystopian 1975 sci-fi A Boy and His Dog.

At the time, he had started dating Griffith (she was 16 when they moved in together), who has said “he was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life”.

I wonder about this now, about how Johnson has spent his entire life as a lust object. Capitalising on it, yes, but also very much an object. By the early ‘80s, Johnson had sobered up (he remained, he says, “like a saint” until the mid-90s), had split from Griffith and had nabbed the lead role in a show that was allegedly pitched to studio chiefs with the words “MTV cops”.

It’s difficult now to overemphasise the importance of Miami Vice, both as a benchmark in Johnson’s career and as a cultural milestone. Each episode cost more than $1m to make (huge in terms of ‘80s TV budgets). Drug dealers watched it for style tips, says rapper Ice-T.

Johnson and co-star Philip Michael Thomas were on the cover of Time magazine.

The first season alone got nominated for a record-breaking 15 Emmy awards. “We didn’t just revolutionise television,” says Johnson, “we contemporised it.” 

His role as a sleazy golf pro opposite Kevin Costner in Tin Cup was a high point, as was his small-screen success Nash Bridges. He split a second time from Griffith in 1996 (they had remarried in 1989) and, eventually, in 1999, married 30-year-old Phleger.

Of the latter relationship he says, with just a tiny hint of smarm and a lot of genuine glassy-eyed feeling: “I had a rare moment of clarity and asked this woman to marry me, and I still think that she’s under a spell. And so I beg of you not to snap your fingers, because God knows what will happen if she ever comes to.”

Since his Aspen-ranch epiphany, Johnson has been on a creative roll, not just starring, but writing too.

He’s happy to see where his own career goes but, post-epiphany, is not particularly bothered. Instead, we close, as you do, on the dissolution of the ego and the eradication of fear. “The original sin, in my opinion, is the fear of death,” he says. “Because it doesn’t make any sense.” Really? You’re not afraid of death? “No.” Why not? He explains that death is inevitable, and that the lessons of physics tell us that energy is constant.

He offers some more theories about life after death and then, suddenly exasperated, sighs: “I don’t know what the hell it is, but, based on what I’ve witnessed, energy does not stop. It continues.”

He laughs out loud. At himself perhaps, or at the sizeable contrast between the old and new Johnsons. He bounds out of the room like a man half his age, a living testament to his own belief system and undeniable proof that Don Johnson does not stop. He continues.

Cold in July is on release now

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