20 Things You Never Knew About Don Johnson
After struggling to land a good role in the early days of his career, Don Johnson made a serious breakthrough in 1984 when he was cast as Sonny Crockett in NBC series Miami Vice. Johnson dazzled as the no-nonsense, stylish detective Crockett right up until the show’s conclusion in 1990. Since then, he’s had no trouble getting work, and went on to be equally successful in the 1990s cop series Nash Bridges. He was even awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996.
There’s a lot more to this acclaimed actor than meets the eye. Here are 20 things you might not have known about Don Johnson.
20. Johnson was roommates with Sal Mineo at the time of his murder
Back in the 70s, Johnson was living in Los Angeles while trying to establish a career in acting.
The most famous film he worked on during this time was arguably A Boy and His Dog, which was released in 1975.
The post-apocalyptic film is set in 2024 and Johnson stars as Vic, an 18-year-old boy navigating what has become the nuclear wasteland of the United States.
While Johnson lived in LA, he shared a room with fellow actor Sal Mineo. Mineo had been a child actor and appeared in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo in 1951.
This star was also making steady progress with his career in the 70s, appearing in various TV series and stage performances.
Johnson was still sharing a room with Mineo when he was murdered outside the apartment in 1976. Mineo was stabbed by Lionel Ray Williams, who was sentenced to 57 years in prison for the killing in 1979.
19. He had a difficult upbringing
Johnson has spoken out about the hardships of his childhood in Crane, Missouri and Wichita, Kansas.
His mother and father were just 17 and 19 years old respectively when they had him, and he was raised in poverty.
The actor was candid about his childhood in a 2019 interview with the Guardian: “I had a horrible childhood, horrible.”
“I had the quinella: abuse and parents who divorced when I was 12 years old and I was the oldest,” he said. “I really was unhappy and I left home at 16.”
However, Johnson believes his traumatic past helped to shape him into a better, stronger adult.
“When you leave home at 16 and you don’t have a plan and you have to fend for yourself and put yourself through high school… that builds a powerful character,” he has noted.
18. He was good friends with journalist and author Hunter S Thompson
Johnson was great friends with American journalist and author Hunter S Thompson, founder of the gonzo movement.
The two lived locally to each other at one point, and even wrote a two-hour long movie together.
Unfortunately, the movie in its original form wasn’t picked up, but CBS bought the idea and eventually turned the story into Nash Bridges in 1996.
Thompson tragically took his own life in 2005. Johnson spoke fondly about his late friend in the Guardian in 2018.
“Ah, I loved Hunter. I miss him every day,” the star said. “He was a gentle soul.”
“He was also wild – amen!” Johnson added. “And yeah, we could just hang out as long as you were willing to drink some whiskey.”
17. He nearly lost his Miami Vice role to Larry Wilcox
Sonny Crockett was undoubtedly Johnson’s breakthrough role. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role now.
But before the show came out in 1980, Johnson very nearly lost the part of Sonny to Vietnam vet and actor Larry Wilcox.
Writing on his fan website in 2011, Wilcox described how the Miami Vice producers had a last-minute change of heart.
“Michael Mann asked me to read for this series called Miami Vice,” he recalled. “He asked if I would grease my hair back and have stubble and moustache and be a hard ass. I said sure.”
Wilcox was as good as signed up for the role but he then received a disappointing phone call the day before Christmas. “They were not going to use me and in fact were going to use Don Johnson.”
Despite the major blow to Wilcox’s career – his only major role remains as Jon Baker in TV series CHiPS – he did concede that the team “made the right choice” in casting Johnson.
16. He made five pilots for NBC that were all rejected
Johnson landed his breakthrough role as Sonny Crockett in 1984 – but it took him a lot of work to get there.
Johnson had seriously struggled as a TV actor for many years prior to his casting in Miami Vice, starring in several pilots for NBC shows which were never picked up.
Most notable of these failed pilots was Cover Girls, a show inspired by Charlie’s Angels.
The pilot episode aired in 1977 and featured Jayne Kennedy and Cornelia Sharpe as supermodels who were spies in disguise.
George Lazenby also appeared as the show’s main antagonist. Johnson’s role was a rock star.
The series never got off the ground after the unsuccessful pilot – but fortunately it didn’t dishearten Johnson from pursuing his dream of acting.
15. He shaved with a sideburn trimmer to maintain his stubble while shooting Miami Vice
Sonny Crockett’s distinctive two-day stubble perfectly rounds off his effortlessly stylish look in Miami Vice.
But Johnson had to alter his grooming routine to maintain the right amount of stubble.
To do this, Johnson invested in a sideburn trimmer and used that to shave in order to achieve Crockett’s four o’ clock shadow.
As Miami Vice was a raging success – with Crockett lauded as a style icon – one innovative company actually created the aptly named ‘Miami Device.’
This deluxe razor promised to aid men in their efforts to emulate Crockett’s famous beard.
However, concerns mounted when they realised the show’s creators could file a lawsuit against them, and changed the name to the not-so-exciting-sounding ‘Stubble Device.’
14. He was considered for the role of Eliot Ness in The Untouchables
Back in 1986, film director Brian De Palma was busy casting for his upcoming film The Untouchables.
De Palma was dead set on the actor he wanted to play leading man Eliot Ness – Miami Vice star Don Johnson.
De Palma was already acquainted with Johnson as he’d previously directed his wife Melanie Griffith in Body Double.
In a recent documentary called De Palma, the legendary director recalls being persuaded by his colleagues to give the opportunity to a then-unknown actor called Kevin Costner.
Costner had appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories TV anthology, but he’d never been cast in a major lead role before, and so it was a risky move.
However, The Untouchables’ producers convinced De Palma and the part was ultimately given to Costner. It went on to become his breakthrough role.
13. He was given a Ferrari Testarossa by Enzo Ferrari
Undercover detective Sonny Crockett’s look would not be complete without his designer ride, the Ferrari Testarossa.
Arguably, this Testarossa is the most famous Ferrari in popular culture thanks to the show.
While the one featured on the show is just a replica, Enzo Ferrari ultimately gifted Johnson a real Testarossa in 1989 just to honour his performance in Miami Vice.
The car was auctioned off in 2003 and has since had a string of different owners. Most recently it was sold at an auction in 2017.
The original Testarossa replica used in the show was put on display at the Volo Auto Museum in Chicago.
The show was a non-stop showcase of the latest sports cars, including Lamborghinis, AMG Mercedes-Benz, Maseratis and Porsches.
12. He caused uproar by not wearing socks to a meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan
Sonny Crockett may have never worn socks on Miami Vice – but it turns out Johnson himself never wore them in real life either.
Johnson was slammed by the press in 1986 when he turned up to a meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan without wearing any socks.
Defending himself, Johnson said: “I’ve always said that for me, a sports jacket over a t-shirt is good enough for meeting anyone, except the Queen.”
“As for the socks, well, I must confess that I simply don’t own a pair anymore,” he noted. “See, I live in Miami.”
At their meeting, Reagan quizzed Johnson on his attitude towards drugs and policing in the real world.
Johnson told the President that decriminalising drugs would help to regulate them, and to take the glamour and excitement out of the trade.
11. He significantly boosted Ray-Ban sales in the 1980s
Back in the 80s, Johnson and Tom Cruise were essentially the poster boys of the Ray-Ban sunglasses brand.
While neither of them had signed any contracts or appeared in any official campaigns, both wore them a lot on screen.
This product placement became one of the most successful surreptitious marketing schemes in television history.
As Sonny Crockett was renowned for his style, Johnson’s wearing Ray-Bans on-screen on Miami Vice was a huge help for the brand.
Johnson wore a variety of Ray-Ban sunglasses on Miami Vice, giving viewers a chance to check out all the different models that the brand had on offer.
As a result of the product placement on the show, Johnson increased Ray-Ban sales by 720,000 units in 1984 alone.
10. He once won a 1,100-mile powerboat race
In another example of how Johnson resembles his Miami Vice character, both the star and Sonny Crockett adore the open sea.
Crockett lives on an Endeavour sailboat named St Vitus’ dance, and he drives a Chris-Craft Stinger 390 X – an offshore racing boat – in the pilot episode and first series.
But acting as Sonny didn’t get in the way of Johnson’s own love for boats. Only a year into filming Miami Vice, Johnson won a 1,100-mile powerboat race.
He piloted the boat along the Mississippi River from New Orleans, crossing the finishing line at St Louis.
In 1988, Johnson won the Offshore World Cup, an award from the American Power Boat Association.
This actor even designed his own power boat, naming it the Scarab Excel 43 ft Don Johnson Signature Series.
9. He didn’t expect to live past the age of 30
Don Johnson was long resigned to the idea that his years of wild partying would catch up with him before long.
In a 2019 interview with the Guardian, he reflected: “I didn’t expect to live to 30, so it’s all been gravy.”
After years of smoking and heavy drinking, the star went completely sober and now sticks to a healthy lifestyle. He uses e-cigarettes.
In the same interview, he also expressed astonishment at how long his Hollywood career has lasted.
“I think I speak for all actors: [when] you finish a job, you almost always think, ‘Well, that was it. I’ll never work again,'” he explained.
“So every day is Christmas for actors,” Johnson said. “Either Santa was good to you that day or not.”
8. He had a hit duet with his then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand
A keen musician, Don Johnson recorded two pop albums as his Miami Vice career was taking off.
His album Heartbeat came out in 1986, and his single of the same name reached spot number five on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
Johnson’s second album, Let it Roll, came out in 1989. His then-girlfriend, the singer and actress Barbra Streisand, performed backing vocals for the song What If It Takes All Night.
Likewise, Johnson’s voice featured on Streisand’s own album in 1988, entitled Till I Love You.
They sang a duet of the same name. This song was taken from the never-staged musical Goya: A Life in Song, which was inspired by the life of Spanish artist Francisco Goya.
This obscure romantic number turned out to be a triumph for Streisand and Johnson. It reached number 16 in the UK charts, 25 in the USA, and 22 in Spain itself.
7. He reportedly turned down the role of John McClane in Die Hard
The producers of Die Hard invited many of Hollywood’s biggest stars to play the part of John McClane, who would become an action icon.
Before Bruce Willis won the role, Don Johnson, Richard Gere and Burt Reynolds all reportedly rejected the part.
Johnson’s most recent movie role had also been an action part, albeit only for voice acting. He was the voice of a lieutenant in the straight-to-video film GI Joe: The Movie.
Instead of Die Hard, Johnson appeared in cinemas in 1988 starring in the comedy drama Sweet Hearts Dance, playing Wiley Boon.
While the film received mixed reviews, the critic Roger Ebert singled out Johnson’s performance as particularly strong.
“I was surprised at how effective Don Johnson was in his role,” he wrote. “It’s the best thing he’s done, and shows he can do good things.”
6. He never knew his daughter Dakota Johnson dreamt of acting
Johnson first met Melanie Griffith while he was starring in The Harrad Experiment. Griffith, then aged 14, was the daughter of Johnson’s co-star Tippi Hedren.
The pair later started a relationship, and were twice married and divorced.They had one daughter, Dakota Johnson.
Dakota Johnson is famed for her roles in the 50 Shades franchise, Suspiria and The Peanut Butter Falcon.
But as a teenager, Dakota successfully kept her dreams of acting a complete secret from both her parents.
Johnson is extremely proud of his daughter’s career, noting in a 2019 interview, “She has the goods.”
“She’s a wonderful actress, and in some ways better than her mother [Melanie Griffith] and me,” he added.
5. He bought an island in Vietnam
In Miami Vice, Johnson’s character Sonny is an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam before becoming an undercover detective.
Funnily enough, Johnson won this famous role while he was starring in the low-budget Vietnam War film Cease Fire in 1985.
In real life, Johnson loves Vietnamese culture, and he even bought a small island off the nation’s southern coast.
Vietnam is also where he and his wife Kelley Phleger spent their honeymoon in 1999.
In a 2002 interview with Cigar Aficionado, Johnson mentioned that he travels to his island paradise for a couple of holidays each year.
The star has also owned properties in Colorado, Los Angeles and Montecito. He lived on Star Island while filming Miami Vice.
4. There’s a Finnish band named after him
In the mid-90s, a group of high school friends in Finland formed an alternative hip hop group.
While booking a rehearsal room, they were asked to name their ensemble – and they came up with the name Don Johnson Big Band on the spot.
This name from the world-famous show Miami Vice struck a chord, and the band stuck with it as they rose to fame.
Influenced by electronic music, funk, rock and jazz, Don Johnson Big Band released a very successful album of the same name in 2006.
It included the song Road, which took the number one spot on the Finnish singles chart.
The band of four has also performed in China under this US actor’s celebrated name.
3. His wealth and success made him “intensely unhappy”
It’s no secret that Johnson’s life was full of wild parties, sports cars and whirlwind romances at the height of his fame.
But in private, the actor was miserable. In a 2014 interview with The Independent, he recalled how unsatisfied he was.
“I had what everyone assumes are the elements that make you happy, and I was intensely unhappy,” he said.
This realisation made him decide to sell off most of his flashy possessions, including his 20 cars and his grand ranch in Colorado.
A world away from his early fame, Johnson opted for a quieter life with his wife, who is a schoolteacher, and their three children.
He took up writing and follows a healthy diet, spending lots of time at the gym.
2. He helped to fund Mark Breland’s boxing career
As big fans of boxing, Don Johnson and his Miami Vice co-star John Diehl decided to invest in the boxing career of Mark Breland.
Breland actually appeared alongside the stars in episodes of Miami Vice entitled Down for the Count (Parts I and II), where he plays a boxer called Bobby Sykes.
In this episode, Sykes is trapped by a manipulative promoter, but won’t readily accept help from the cops.
By winning his trust, Crockett and Tubbs manage to save Sykes from a gambling ring and set his career back on track.
Breland won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, the year before Miami Vice first came out.
He went on to win five New York Golden Gloves titles, overtaking the record set by Sugar Ray Robinson.
1. He was a muse for the fashion designer Gianni Versace
The designer Gianni Versace cited Don Johnson as a source of creative inspiration, noting that Johnson was the first person he dressed in Miami.
The show Miami Vice soon became known for its designer outfits, and in particular, its stylish pastel shirts.
The fashionable holsters and heavy jackets were often at odds with the strenuous action sequences that the actors had to perform.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Johnson said it was very strange to be dressed in such expensive clothing in the burning heat while filming.
“It’s 100 degrees out there with 98 percent humidity,” he recalled. “How can I do this? So I just started rolling up the sleeves, losing pieces of clothing — socks, belts — wearing T-shirts.”
“Lo and behold, soon I’m wearing Versace, Armani, Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler, all these incredible designers,” he remembered.