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Don Johnson Biography


Home > Actors > J > Johnson, Don > Biography


Birth Name: Don Johnson
Born: 12/15/1949
Birth Place: Flatt Creek, Missouri, USA


Born on Dec. 15, 1949 in Flat Creek, MO, Johnson was raised in Galena by his father, Wayne, a farmer, and his mother, Nell, a beautician who was only 16 at the time of his birth. After the family moved to Wichita, KS, where his father worked as a mechanic at an airplane factory, his parents divorced when he was 11. Though he lived with his mother for a time, Johnson began skipping school, shoplifting and hanging out with the fast crowd, which led to being declared incorrigible by the courts that eventually sent him to live with his father. Following a brush with the law for stealing a car, which led to a stint in reform school, Johnson finally found his footing at Wichita South High School, where he fell into drama after being thrown out of business administration for sleeping through class. Johnson smooth-talked his way into the class, but soon found encouragement from his teacher, who saw real talent in the teenager. Because he could sing and dance as well as act, he soon found himself cast as in the leading role of Tony for a production of "West Side Story."

After graduating college, Johnson received help from the same drama teacher to secure a scholarship to continue his dramatic training at the University of Kansas. But two years later, he left the university to head west, where he attended the American Conservatory Theatre on a grant and landed an understudy role in the musical, "Your Own Thing" within two weeks of arriving in San Francisco. While performing with ACT, Johnson was soaking up the late-'60s counterculture consuming the city, leading to his first real exposure to heavy drugs. Meanwhile, he had his first major stage role, playing Smitty in Sal Mineo's Los Angeles production of "Fortune and Men's Eyes" (1969), while dabbling in music by playing in a psychedelic band called Horses. Though he had the opportunity to follow the show to New York, Johnson instead chose to take the lead role in "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" (1970), a forgettable drama in which he played a college student trying to find himself through a haze of sex and drugs, a precursor for what was to come in his off-screen.

Though he had managed to land work, Johnson was struggling professionally while quickly earning a reputation as a hard-partying lothario. He engaged in his most notorious affair following his co-starring role opposite Tippi Hedren in the forgettable melodrama, "The Harrad Experiment" (1973). It was during the filming of this movie that Johnson met Hedren's daughter, Melanie Griffith, then a rather precocious and mature 14-year-old who, according to him, seduced the actor into becoming her lover despite their age difference and the risk of being sent to jail. At the time, Johnson had been living with famed groupie, Pamela Des Barres, whom he left to be with Griffith. Three years later, the two were married, only to split after less than a year of being husband and wife. During that time, Johnson starred in what became one of his most noted films, the cult classic "A Boy and His Dog" (1975), a post-apocalyptic tale based on a novella by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison, in which he and his telepathic dog eke out an existence above ground, while escaping the clutches of a bizarre underground society.

While he was at the height of his drug and alcohol consumption, Johnson made his television movie debut in "Law of the Land" (NBC, 1976), in which he played a tough lawman on the hunt for a serial killer in the Old West. Next followed a string of forgettable television movies and pilots like the cancer drama "First, You Cry" (NBC, 1978), the amazingly dull "Ski Lift to Death" (CBS, 1978), the miniseries "Beulah Land" (NBC, 1980) and "Elvis and the Beauty Queen" (NBC, 1981), which depicted Elvis Presley (Johnson) and his four-year romance with former beauty pageant winner, Linda Thompson (Stephanie Zimblast). During this time, he embarked on a rather tempestuous relationship with actress Patti D'Arbanville, which resulted in their son, Jesse, whom Johnson gained custody of after a successful legal battle in the late-1980s. But this time also marked two major upheavals for the actor: he managed to reach sobriety, albeit for a while, and he finally became one of the most talked-about and emulated television stars of the decade, thanks to his five-year run as the scruffy, but flashy narcotics officer Sonny Crockett on the hit cop show "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-1990).

Far more than a hit show, "Miami Vice," which also starred Phillip Michael Thomas as Crockett's partner, Ricardo Tubbs, broke new ground for police procedurals, while becoming a trend-setting touchstone for fans who emulated Johnson's three-day beard, pastel-colored suits and lack of socks. Successfully integrating popular music of the day with high-octane action sequences, the show was a perfect MTV-esque vehicle for Johnson to showcase his charm and good looks, while also displaying enough acting chops to win a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in 1986. Like anything that burns brightly, "Miami Vice" fizzled rather quickly, noticeably losing popularity during its third season and ultimately finding itself off the air after season five when Crockett inexplicably married guest star, pop singer Sheena Easton. Still, the cultural impact of the show and of Johnson's character was immense, lasting well into the following decades. Meanwhile, Johnson again found himself in the midst of several fleeting affairs, including a brief romance with Barbra Streisand during the time the two recorded the ridiculed duet, "Till I Loved You," in 1988. He also began recording his own music, releasing the surprise hit album, Heartbeat (1986), which produced the single of the same name that reached all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard charts.

During his run on "Miami Vice," Johnson put in a very impressive performance as a menacing drifter in the television remake of "The Long, Hot Summer" (NBC, 1985), while following up with his second album, Let It Roll (1988). Inevitably, the Eighties and "Miami Vice" were destined to end; both of which prefaced his stab at feature film stardom a la Bruce Willis. But unlike the "Die Hard" action star, Johnson's bid for movie success fell short, to say the least. He tried everything from the romantic drama "Sweet Hearts Dance" (1988) and John Frankenheimer's action thriller "Dead Bang" (1989), to Dennis Hopper's erotic neo-noir "The Hot Spot" (199) and the painful buddy biker flick, "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man" (1991), also starring a waning Mickey Rourke. In 1989, Johnson remarried old flame Melanie Griffith, with whom he starred in two underwhelming features, "Paradise" (1991) and "Born Yesterday" (1993). Even a teaming with illustrious director Sidney Lumet for the courtroom drama "Guilty as Sin" (1993) proved disappointing and ordinary. Johnson finally scored on the big screen playing second banana to Kevin Costner in Ron Shelton's "Tin Cup" (1996), delivering a fine comic performance as a narcissistic golf pro. He also demonstrated onscreen chemistry with future "Nash Bridges" co-star Cheech Marin in their first pairing.

Johnson served as an executive producer for the thriller "In the Company of Darkness" (CBS, 1993) as well as the short-lived series "The Marshall" (ABC, 1995), for which he directed some episodes before helping to develop the police drama "Nash Bridges" (CBS, 1996-2001), a highly anticipated return to series television which he also executive produced. While the clothes paled in comparison to "Miami Vice," the premise - about an elite special investigations detective in San Francisco - was familiar, as was the familiar 10 pm time slot on Friday night. Also familiar was Johnson riding around in a flashy car, only this time he traded in his Ferrari for a mustard-yellow 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and added a vest to go with the blazer-over-T-shirt look. With Cheech Marin as his politically correct sidekick, the charming, unflappably cool "Bridges" earned strong ratings and consistently finished a strong second to ABC's long-running magazine show, "20/20." But the show's Achilles heel was Johnson himself, who proved difficult to deal with on set while the cost of the show - which by some estimates exceeded $2 million per episode - justified the network's decision to cancel the show following its fifth season.

Back on the upswing with his television career, Johnson tried his hand once more at making a dent in films. The reception for his next effort, the crime thriller "Goodbye Lover" (1998), was lukewarm coming out of the Cannes Film Festival and helped lead to a limited release, after which the film was left forgotten. Meanwhile, Johnson was again running into a variety of personal problems, some of which stemmed from his 1996 divorce from Griffith that was allegedly fueled by both of their inflamed addictions. After marrying socialite, heiress and former preschool teacher, Kelley Phleger, Johnson seemed on the path to the straight and narrow. But in late 2001, he checked himself into a rehab clinic to dry up from his excess drinking habit. Two years later, Johnson was involved in a bizarre incident in Switzerland while driving to Germany. He allegedly was carrying over $8 billion in financial bonds, was stopped at the border and questioned. News of the incident broke all across the world with many assuming he was involved in some kind of money laundering scheme. But Johnson later claimed that the documents were financial statements being used as proof to help fund a film project. He felt that the story was blown out of proportion, a claim that was backed by the fact that no charges were ever filed against him.

In 2004, Johnson's personal life went from bad to worse when news broke that he was forced to file bankruptcy. He had several outstanding debts for several thousands of dollars, including to an Aspen hospital and a grocery store for unpaid food bills. His biggest debt was for half a million dollars stemming from an unpaid load from City National Bank in Los Angeles. Worst of all was his inability to land many acting parts, regardless of quality. He had a starring role in the legal drama, "Just Legal" (The WB, 2005), but the show was canceled after only three episodes. Turning to the big screen in his time of need, Johnson co-starred in the independent drama, "Moondance Alexander" (2007), which barely saw a theatrical release. Following his West End debut as Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls" (2007), Johnson played the father of a disillusioned young woman (Kristen Bell) who finds unexpected European romance in "When in Rome" (2010). He next joined a motley crew that included Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, Cheech Marin and Robert De Niro for Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" (2010), a full-length feature version of the faux trailer the director had originally run in his B-movie exploitation flick with Quentin Tarantino, "Grindhouse" (2007). On TV, he had a recurring role as the long-lost father of washed-up ballplayer Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) on "Eastbound & Down" (HBO, 2009- ), while back on the big screen, he had supporting turns in the indie comedy "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" (2011), the universally panned comedy "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" (2011) and Quentin Tarantino's highly anticipated spaghetti Western, "Django Unchained" (2012).