Best known for his role as Detective Sonny Crockett on the stylish, era-defining ’80s cop show Miami Vice, Don Johnson has long been a reliable source of major charisma on screen and off. On Miami Vice he gave pastel suits and white shoes worn without socks sex appeal.
Many men have attempted to emulate his style, but capturing his level of swagger isn’t easy. Here’s the story of how he became a Hollywood legend, and what he did before and after his signature role.
Don Johnson young
While Johnson is forever associated with the ’80s, his career started long before that. Born in Missouri in 1949, he began acting in plays in the late ’60s. The actor Sal Mineo (best-known for his role in Rebel Without a Cause) saw a teen Johnson performing in a play at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and hired him to star in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a highly controversial production about a young man’s experience in prison.
From there, he made his screen debut in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, a 1970 movie rooted in the counterculture of the time. The film was a flop: As Johnson recalled in an interview with AV Club, “It was part of those youth-movement films that the studios were trying to make to catch up and catch that marketplace… it damn near buried me! It damn near sent me back to Missouri!“
More film roles followed throughout the ’70s, but a breakout failed to materialize. These movies included Zachariah, an artsy Western, and A Boy and His Dog, a dystopian sci-fi billed as “a rather kinky tale of survival” and set in the then-distant year of 2024.
In 1973, Johnson acted in the coming-of-age movie The Harrad Experiment, alongside veteran actress Tippi Hedren. Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith, was an uncredited extra. Johnson and Griffith soon started dating and married in 1976, ultimately divorcing the same year.
They would remarry in 1989 and divorce again in 1994. Their daughter, Dakota Johnson (who looks like the perfect combination of her famous parents), is now a popular actress in her own right, and starred in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.
As the ’70s continued, Johnson showed up in TV movies and single episodes of TV shows like Kung Fu, Eight Is Enough and Police Story. He worked consistently, racking up a long list of credits, but wouldn’t become a household name until early in the next decade.
Don Johnson in the ’80s
Miami Vice would be the show that changed everything, not just for Johnson, but for pop culture at large. The cinematic visuals and use of music video-inspired editing and a trendy soundtrack led to a wave of slick, atmospheric media and proved that cop shows didn’t need to be gritty to be popular.
While it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Crockett, Johnson actually wasn’t the immediate choice for the role. There was a long audition process, and NBC executives weren’t sure he was ideal, given his years of toiling in smaller movies and failed TV pilots, and his reputation for being something of a wild card (with his dashing good looks, he was a ladies’ man, and he partook in many of the indulgences of the ’70s). The network ultimately overcame their concerns, of course, and Johnson starred in all 111 episodes of the show, from 1984 to 1989.
Miami Vice received good press, and it had its signature style down right from the first episode. However, it was not an immediate hit, but rather built up a fanbase over time. By the show’s second season, in 1985, it became a phenomenon, and Johnson was a true star. He even dabbled in music, releasing albums in 1986 and 1989.
While there have been plenty of cop shows over the years, few had as distinct a look as Miami Vice. Johnson’s style on the show was what he called “form following function.” Following the mandate to make the show as stylish as possible, the costume designer, Jodi Tillen, brought in gorgeous clothes from Italian fashion houses.
However, because the show was filmed on location in Florida, it was extremely hot, and not the ideal condition for wearing long sleeves. As Johnson remembered, “I put a T-shirt on, no belt, no socks, the lightest weight shoes I could find. And I pushed the sleeves up on the jacket because it was so hot.” He certainly made it work, and many men — even outside of sweaty Miami — followed his lead.
Don Johnson in the ’90s — and beyond
After five seasons, Miami Vice had run its course, and Johnson was ready for something different. His first role after the show was in The Hot Spot, a 1990 neo-noir movie.
Johnson then starred in two movies with his then-wife, Melanie Griffith, Paradise, a 1991 tearjerker, and Born Yesterday, a 1993 remake of a classic comedy from the ’50s. Both films received negative reviews.
Johnson returned to the small screen in Nash Bridges, a cop show in which he played the title character. The show ran from 1996 to 2001, and, like Miami Vice, it centered on two cops in a sunny locale.
While the show was more of a typical procedural than Miami Vice, it actually gave Johnson one of his favorite roles. In a New York Times interview, he said of his character, “I liked his nimbleness, how he could be funny one moment and dead cold serious the next.” In 2021, he even reprised the role for a TV movie.
What is Johnson doing now?
Recently, Johnson’s been having a career renaissance. He appeared in the critically acclaimed miniseries Watchmen in 2019, and was part of the ensemble cast in the blockbuster murder mystery Knives Out that same year.
Johnson also played Jane Fonda’s love interest in the mature rom-com Book Club and its 2023 sequel, Book Club: The Next Chapter. In an interview, he said, “I’ve known Jane for 40 years, like it says in the script… And I’ve had a crush on her for 40 years. So, when the opportunity came up [it was] a lifelong dream fulfilled.“
Today, in his 70s, Johnson remains dashing, and the enduring nostalgia for all things ’80s has kept Miami Vice in the cultural conversation. He’s also carved out a diverse array of movie credits that are worlds away from the little-seen ’70s movies in which he got his start.
Often dismissed as a pretty boy early on, Johnson ultimately proved his acting chops. In an interview with The Guardian, he admitted that he never thought he’d make it this far, and said he was “really proud” to have taken on many roles post-Miami Vice.
As he described it to the Guardian, “I was able to separate Don Johnson from Sonny Crockett and take Don Johnson on a journey where others were willing to say: ‘Oh, OK, let me check him out in this…’ And that’s not a small accomplishment.”
While we can’t resist revisiting young Don Johnson in Miami Vice, we’re still always happy to see him in whatever show or movie he shows up in, and think his renaissance is well-deserved.
Want to read more about your favorite actors? Check out these articles: