Posted on | February 2, 2014 | 1 Comment
Partying with Hendrix, jamming with the Allmans, and more women and drugs than any man has a right to. A Hollywood legend looks back
MAYBE YOU ONLY KNOW DON Johnson from his five-episode run in HBO’s Eastbound & Down, as that asshole Kenny Powers’ dissolute, reprobate dad, strangely named Eduardo Sanchez, who upon seeing his son for the first time in years says, “Same ol’ Kenny. Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. And friends with faggots.” Or else maybe you’ve heard him mentioned in connection with Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Django Unchained, in which he rides tall in the saddle playing a pimping plantation owner named Big Daddy. Or maybe you remember when he was Nash Bridges in the cop show Nash Bridges, 1996-2001, which was drolly amusing and eventually led him to sue the producers for his fair share of the pie, enriching him by as much as $15 million. Or maybe you recollect him from his years, 1984-90, as one of the biggest stars in the country, in Miami Vice, playing undercover detective Sonny Crockett, introducing many of the many grotesque stylings of the day, including pastel-colored T-shirts under Versace jackets, jackets with their sleeves bunched up, pleated, high-waisted linen trousers, slip-on loafers without socks, so-called designer stubble, alligators named Elvis as pets, overuse of the word “pal,” as in, “Mellow out, pal,” etc., etc. Or maybe it’s all coming back to you now, yeah, he’s the guy who hooked up with Melanie Griffith when she was 14 and he was 22 and became well known for loving his booze and loving his blow and saying kooky, proto-Charlie Sheen stuff like, “I can do whatever I want. I’m rich, I’m famous and I’m bigger than you.” Shouldn’t he be running for governor of California?
Actually, he’s in the lobby of the Santa Barbara Four Seasons right now, having just removed his shades. His eyes are as blue and sparkly as ever. The charming little dimples remain charming and little. The sandy-blond center-parted hair still spreads perfectly, like a DeLorean’s gullwing doors. He’s 63 and looks great, hardly any worse for all the messing around. He ambles across the floor into the bar, stops, looks, chuckles. “Yeah, man,” he says, “in the old days, I would have already been in here for hours.” He goes on, his voice a little Southern, a little raspy, “Actually, I was a multiple-substance kinda guy. I would drink, smoke pot, do cocaine, maybe eat a Quaalude. I could go through a good portion of a quart of vodka, and that was my opener. I’d wake up the next day like I’d been hit by a truck, to the point where my skin would hurt. I can remember that horrible feeling when you get up and go, ‘Ohhhh, no, I didn’t do that. I didn’t take my dick out. Did I?’ And an honest friend says, ‘Oh, yeah, that was you. With your dick out. Waving it in your partner’s face.’ But by six that afternoon, you’re like, ‘Let’s fire this thing up again!'” He smiles. “I was a lot of fun, apparently.”
He takes a seat out on a patio, orders an iced tea, kicks back, digs into his pants pocket, comes up with an electronic cigarette, says, “I haven’t smoked in years,” takes a nice, deep drag, and exhales hardly anything at all. Once Nash Bridges ended, at a time when his substance-abuse issues were legion, he spent the next 10 years not getting much work, only a small TV project here and a foreign flick there (including a Norwegian movie called Lange Flate Ballœzr II, which translates as Long Flat Balls II). But then in 2010, he showed up in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, as a racist border-patrol vigilante, followed that with Eastbound & Down, and followed that with Django Unchained. He seems to be on some kind of roll, with the Tarantino gig likely to punch up his presence even more. “It’s a sprawling, epic Western, set around slavery, the sale of human flesh, and – OK, let’s cut to the chase – black pussy,” he says. “There were four or five parts in it I could play, and Quentin said, ‘Well, what about Ace Woody?’ The script was, like, 187 pages long, or about four hours onscreen, and I knew it’d have to be cut. Big Daddy is only in the movie for, like, 15 or 20 minutes, but he comes in at an integral axis turning point. All the rest of the shit can go, including Ace Woody, but you can’t cut Big Daddy, so I said, ‘I’m feeling a little bit more for Big Daddy,’ and that was that.”
Obviously, Johnson has been around the business some and learned a few things. During that decade of nothing much coming his way, for instance, no matter how bad it got, he knew that all he had to do was wait long enough and fortune would favor him once again. “The phone had pretty much stopped ringing. And then, when I quit drinking, I started gaining weight, and when I looked in the mirror, I saw a fat guy, and in my business, that’s like suicide. It became like a goddamned B-movie Star Is Born. All the friends leave. And I was like, ‘Really? You’re going to live this fucking life, this fucking cliché, you asshole?’ But even when I needed the money, there were certain things I just wouldn’t do. I got offers for some episodic, has-been guest spots. And I’m like, ‘I’m going to go out there and be the living example of what I know that is, for what, a hundred grand? I don’t think so, Scooter!’ See, I always figured it’d be like what John Huston says in Chinatown: ‘Old buildings and whores get respectable if they hang around long enough.’ And that’s what I was doing, hanging around, like an old building or a whore.”
THE FIRST TIME A MAjor-league audience ever saw Johnson was in 1969, in Los Angeles, in a play called Fortune and Men’s Eyes, set in a prison, with him naked and getting butt-fucked in a jail-cell rape scene, The Advocate’s cover-story review calling it “Brutal, exciting!” Sometimes that’s just how it goes. He was 19. He’d spent his first five years in some nameless flyspeck part of rural Missouri, where his dad was a farmer with a bad temper and his mom was a beautician; moved to Kansas, where his parents divorced; at the age of 12 lost his virginity to a baby sitter, setting the tone for that part of his life; skipped school a lot; hustled pool with an older friend; learned how to hot-wire cars; spent some time in juvy for doing same; acted in high school plays; attended the University of Kansas on an acting scholarship, where, for his 18th birthday, his 29-year-old acting teacher gave herself to him (“I was infinitely available”); shacked up with her; eventually moved to San Francisco, where within two weeks he was cast as the lead in a musical; was drooled over by James Dean’s bisexual acting-and-directing buddy Sal Mineo, who offered him the lead in his production of that prison drama; told Mineo, “Look, now, if you think I’m letting anybody fuck me for this role, you’re out of your bean”; became the toast of both the straight and gay communities, because he was uncommonly beautiful, boyish and warm-apple-pie fresh-looking, with long blond bangs, dark eyebrows and soulful bedroom eyes, and let’s not forget those lips.
“They looked like women’s lips,” recalls Pamela Des Barres, who went out with Johnson around that time and later, in her 1987 groupie memoir, I’m With the Band, also wrote very admiringly about his penis. “They were so lush and red, redder than if you put lipstick on them, and instantly you wanted to latch onto them. He was just gorgeous.”
The swirling Hollywood scene was also taken by his willingness to expose himself in various situations involving nudity and sexual liaisons of all kinds, in movies like The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), which was both his first film and his first lead movie role, and The Harrad Experiment (1973), which co-starred Tippi Hedren, who had a daughter named Melanie Griffith, who was an extra in the flick and years later said that the first thing she thought when she saw Johnson was “I want him.”
“He was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my short life – and that mouth was unbelievable,” Griffith says today. “We were living together by the time I was 16. It was a different time. It was great.”
He rented a pad in the Hollywood Hills and began living the kind of life you could live in those days. He was friends with Jim Morrison, who would drop by the theater where Fortune played and between performances smoke dope with Johnson (“I’d be shitfaced”), then fire him up with dexies so the show could go on. One time, he was coming out of a nightclub bathroom with white powder all over his upper lip, only to be stopped by Jimi Hendrix, who stuck his finger out, said, “Hey, man, you can’t be walking around looking like that,” and politely wiped the powder away. He got to know Hunter Thompson, too – “I was the kid in the room. Hunter would say, ‘What the fuck are you doing here? Gimme a Chivas and water and shut the fuck up'” – and they became lifelong pals, with Thompson being instrumental in the conception of Nash Bridges. In 1974, Johnson met Dickey Betts, wrote a few songs that the Allman Brothers recorded, and once got called onstage at Madison Square Garden, to help out on “Ramblin’ Man” (and, later on, in the Eighties, made two not-bad-at-all pop-rock albums himself, the first one actually rising up the charts to Number 17).
And then there’s the women. In that regard, he could not have been more successful, marrying Melanie Griffith twice, in 1976 and 1989, and helping to raise two children, Dakota and Alexander. “Our second marriage was all very beautiful and passionate and wonderful for a while, and then it wasn’t,” says Griffith. “What happened was, a lot of success and a lot of material stuff and a lot of fame and a lot of ego on both our sides, and it sent us apart. We fucked it up, really.” He also spent a few years with actress Patti D’Arbanville (resulting in one child, Jesse), and had affairs with that famous groupie Pamela Des Barres, the famous singer Barbra Streisand, the famous country-western crooner Tanya Tucker and others, both famous and not, too numerous to mention, with monogamy hardly even a word worth mentioning until 1996, when he met Kelley Phleger, a Santa Barbara socialite, at a party, shoved her then-boyfriend out of the way, told her that he was going to marry her and, three years later, did just that. According to every biography of Johnson ever written, he was also married two other times, early on, but he’s not so sure about that. He frowns. He says, “That was either the press being overactive or me making it up. It could have gone either way.” So, those two marriages never happened? He frowns deeper. “To the best of my knowledge. I mean, to the best of my recollection.”
In terms of his career, however, he was mainly going nowhere. Hollywood wanted to turn him into a pretty-boy flavor-of-the-minute, and he consistently refused to play along. “He tried to make himself look unattractive for auditions,” his longtime friend and Nash Bridges co-star Cheech Marin remembers. “He’d go in having put brown stuff on his teeth or something, just to try to break out of that mold.” During those years, he made one noteworthy movie, A Boy and His Dog (1975), but the darkly humorous post-apocalyptic tale became a cult classic instead of the semihit it deserved to be. He teamed up with Nick Nolte for 1975’s Return to Macon County (kind of the Long Flat Balls II of its time), which didn’t do much to boost his prospects and left him with his happy memories of hanging out with Nolte after work, typically celebrating with two cases of beer, a couple of quarts of vodka, a few Quaaludes and some shavings off the big rock of cocaine that Johnson kept in a drawer in his hotel room – “and it was a real-deal rock, man!”
As it turns out, Johnson loved his coke. Who didn’t in those days? But it did get him into some pretty dicey situations. Once, he tagged along on a drug deal involving a kilo of the stuff (“I was just there for the free drugs, I swear!”), when something went wrong and out came the shotguns, with shots fired, and Johnson bailing through a window. “I was usually hanging out with a much higher-class crowd than that,” he says, shifting around. “I usually never got involved. I never was a dealer. I never was a smuggler. Well, I mean, I would smuggle for myself, personally, but that was it. I didn’t like being around a bunch of weight. I could feel the negative energy.”
He made a bunch of stinky TV movies about that time, too, among them name-says-it-all fare like Revenge of the Step-ford Wives; Katie: Portrait of a Center-fold; and Ski Lift to Death. Failed TV pilots, he had five of those. But sometime in the early Eighties (according to legend), NBC Entertainment head Brandon Tartikoff wrote a memo that simply read “MTV cops,” handed it to Hill Street Blues writer Anthony Yerkovich, and thus was Miami Vice conceived. It was a hit right from the start; more than that, it was a cultural phenomenon. It was the first show to weave pop music into its storylines, supersaturating Friday nights at 10 with Phil Collins’ poundingly propulsive “In the Air Tonight” and paving the way for future groundbreaking series such as Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue. Johnson and his co-star, Philip Michael Thomas, appeared on the covers of Time, Jet and TV Guide, as well as this magazine. Suddenly, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing some dude dressed à la Sonny Crockett, white jacket, sheer, nipple-showing pastel T-shirt and the like. Specialized razors designed to leave behind stubble went on sale, and Crockett’s Bren Ten pistol became a collectors item. And, of course, it was only with Miami Vice that Miami’s South Beach became Miami’s South Beach.
And at the center of it all was Don Johnson, fairly long in the tooth at 35, and the biggest star in the country. “When I was a little boy, I was a big fan and wondered why Don wasn’t a bigger star,” says Tarantino. “When he hit with Miami Vice and everyone said he was so great, I said, ‘I’ve been telling you that for 10 years.'”
Just so Johnson wouldn’t have to sign so many goddamned autographs, he printed up a business card to hand out that read, “Sorry you caught me at an inconvenient moment. Thank you for appreciating my work. If you would like an autographed picture, please write to?” His sense of self-worth ran wild. He was deemed difficult to work with. In 1985, People labeled him “Don the egomaniac, a star said to be so flushed with success that he’s high-handed with the press, fans and co-workers ? and given to throwing tantrums on the set when he doesn’t get his way.” Looking back on it, Johnson says, “Yeah, I think I behaved abominably sometimes.” But at the time, he couldn’t have been happier. “I do recommend fame, highly,” he said. “It’s the best drug I’ve ever had, and with no hangover.” Or, at least, that’s how it appeared to him then.
HE’S AT HIS HOME outside Santa Barbara now, a magnificent spread with terraced lawns, a koi pond (lots of frogs, too), a swimming pool, a tea house, the whole nine yards, and a view clear to the Pacific. He lives here with wife Kelley, their three kids, Grace, 12, Jasper, 10, and Deacon, 6, and a dog named Uri that’s flapping its tongue all over Don’s ankles.
“He’s a real lover,” says Johnson, pushing him away.
“Don hates licking,” says Kelley, who is tall, dark-haired and somewhat no-nonsense.
“Hey,” Johnson says. “You’re going to ruin my reputation. I mean, what’s left of it I haven’t already torched, ha ha.”
He goes out onto his back deck with a cup of coffee, scratches his head, puffs away on that electronic-cigarette thingy, and fields the kind of inquiries that come from leading a life like his in public. For instance, the Internet has it that the slang term “Johnson” was coined in reference to his penis. Could that be true?
He looks straight ahead. “No.”
Well, people think it’s either him or Lyndon Johnson.
More looking straight ahead. “Nah, no. I mean, I’m flattered. Should I be flattered? I don’t know.”
And yet it’s true, is it not, that his penis has, over the years, on its own, attained quite some standing in the world at large?
He snorts, doesn’t exactly laugh. “Well, it was certainly making a lot of decisions. It had its own head, its own apartment, its own room.”
If he would, please meditate on that for a moment.
He’s beginning to look grim. “I don’t know what the fuck to think about that. You know, that’s one of those — “
Because, really, his penis is legendary, what with Pamela Des Barres waxing on about its various wonders in her memoir, in a chapter titled “I Met Him on a Monday and My Heart Stood Still”: “HUGE cock,” she wrote, lifting from the pages of her you-are-there diary. “I’m getting off like I haven’t in AGES.” (And even today, she remains impressed: “That was one of his charms, for sure. I mean, that was a fabulous part of his being, and he certainly knew what to do with it.”)
He leans back. “Yeah,” he says. “She always jokes about that with me. ‘I wrote 7,362 words and all they want to talk about is Don’s big cock.’ Look. I’ve seen guys with a lot bigger dicks than me. One time I was in the Celtics locker room talking to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale – this probably isn’t great to talk about for attribution, but I’m gonna tell it anyway, fuck it – and we’re shooting the shit, and I turn and there’s Dennis Johnson coming out of the showers and, dude, that’s who put the Johnson in Johnson. I mean, it must have shown on my face, because when I turned back to Larry, he looked at me and said, ‘I know, huh?’ and I was like, ‘Dude, that’s a weapon. He could do 10-to-20 for that!'”
He pauses for a long moment, puffing on his fake cig, tilts his head and goes on, “I think those who have been fortunate enough to have good looks and to not have challenges in those other areas, well, you can get lulled into a false sense of security. I mean, there was some primordial stuff going on there, where in your twenties and thirties your instinct is to spread the seed. And when you have a particular look and, you know, viability as a partner, it’s going to be easier for you. But it can also mean you rely on things that don’t mean anything. It’s kind of a curse, and there are guys who would go, ‘That’s bullshit.’ But, for real. When it becomes so easy to fill the void, you don’t have a great deal of motivation to look for anything deeper.”
So what changed to allow him to change?
He leans forward. “Let’s see. From the time I was 32 until I was around 42, I didn’t drink. Then I didn’t drink again until I was about 44, 45, and then I drank in San Francisco when I was doing Nash Bridges. I had to torture myself for another few years with drugs and alcohol and failed relationships. But then I was pretty much done. I remember a seminal moment, standing on the back deck of my ranch in Aspen, I’m a big star, I’ve got all this shit, airplanes, cars, boats, a stream running down by my house, and I’m going, ‘Wow, this is really fucking amazing. Why am I so miserable?’ You’re basically trying to fill a void brought about by childhood trauma, childhood stuff. My father was rageful, and there was a lot of corporal punishment, maybe because he was 18, 19 when I was born. My mother was 16. But, really, it’s just the journey. I mean, the journey is the journey. So then I spent more time getting to know myself, the authentic self, to where I can feel the universe, what space is made of. I have a sense of how it feels. That maybe sounds a little weird, but when you learn how to quiet the being, when you get into a space of silence, then you become more familiar with the subtle changes in the atmosphere and the, you know, just the fabric of the universe. It’s about shining the light on your ego and the story you’ve made up for yourself, and when you do that, it starts to dissolve, and that’s a great fucking day. You get to the authentic self. I don’t want to come off like I think I’m some kind of Buddhist monk, but it’s a way of referencing the difference between having a little clarity and having none. The transformation I’ve gone through is massive.”
Here’s the thing about Johnson. He seems like a pretty good guy. He’s easy-going, warm, open and still as engaging as ever. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. His youngest child thinks he’s a hairdresser. The other two living here know he’s an actor but couldn’t care less. He has no mementos from any period of his big-time past hanging on the walls. Yes, indeed, it does sound like he’s currently rather overstuffed himself with recovery-speak claptrap. But so what? It’s on the side of the angels, isn’t it? For Pete’s sake, just let the man be.
AFTER “MIAMI VICE” ENDED, HE was certifiably great in just one movie, 1996’s Tin Cup, playing Kevin Costner’s snarky golf-pro adversary, but he failed to capitalize on it in any meaningful way. For whatever reason, Johnson and the movies have so far never really managed to click. He reportedly once said, “I’m better than Robert De Niro, I’m better than Al Pacino. I’ve got the talent, they’ve got the material.” And that very well may be true. In many of his movies – among them Dead-Bang, The Hot Spot, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and, who knows, maybe even Long Flat Balls II – his work is better than anyone else’s. But, as Johnson often likes to point out, in Hollywood you’re only as good as your last successful project, which probably explains why, until fairly recently, the only time you heard about him was in connection with unpleasantness, like in 2002, when German border officials found $8 billion in credit notes and other securities during a routine check and thought he was involved in money-laundering (he was cleared), or in 2004, when financial woes forced a holding company he owned into bankruptcy, or in 2009, when he filed that suit against the Nash Bridges production company. So it’s kind of great that now, for the first time in a long time, he’s being talked about in connection with what he does for a living, especially in Django Unchained, in which he plays his character like a deranged Colonel Sanders, drops the n-bomb repeatedly and shows a delightful fondness for words like “peckerwood.”
Toward evening, Johnson and Kelley drive out into wine country, to a very exclusive, very expensive restaurant called the Stonehouse, at San Ysidro Ranch. He asks the hostess for a table outside. She looks at him and says, “Do you have a reservation?”
“No, but I know you can — “
She cuts him off. “Well, the lower terrace is for people with reservations, but we do have room inside, I think.”
“You don’t have anything out here?”
She looks at him again and goes to check.
Johnson shrugs and says, “I should be like, ‘Come on, motherfucker! Don’t you know who I used to be?'” He tosses out a little chuckle. “You know what else I get? Some hot chick walks up to you and you’re going, ‘OK, still got it!’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you in anything, but my mother thinks you’re the fucking bomb! Now, what do you do, actually?'”
The hostess returns. Nope, no table outside for Don Johnson, unless he wants to wait around for maybe 10 or 15 minutes.
It’s OK. He goes inside. Times have changed. They were once one way, now they’re another.
Later on, after dinner, Kelley’s phone rings. She answers it, talks, hangs up, says to her husband, “That was your six-year-old calling, and we need to stop by the drugstore on the way home for Pull-Ups.” She laughs. “It used to be condoms you’re stopping for, now it’s diapers.”
Johnson laughs too. “Well, actually, during Miami Vice, it was pre-AIDS. Sodom and Gomorrah, baby. Like when I was living down in Miami, I’d have three or four of my buddies over and have my assistant call the modeling agencies and order five girls from each agency. So, like, 25 girls. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, just a mixture. One time I had U2 over. Bono walks in, he goes, ‘What the fuck. You do this every night?’ ‘Every Saturday night.’ He said, ‘I’ll be back!’ It was a blast. And the only rule was, I get to pick first.”
Kelley rests her hand on top of his. “Diapers.”
Johnson smiles. “Yup.” And sometimes that’s just how it goes too.
“The phone had pretty much stopped ringing. And when I quit drinking, I started gaining weight. It became like a goddamned B-movie ‘Star Is Born.'”
“During ‘Miami Vice,’ it was Sodom and Gomorrah, baby,” Johnson says. “I think I behaved abominably sometimes – but I did have a blast.”
VICE, VICE, BABY On Miami Vice, Johnson ushered in an era of pastels and five o’clock shadow (1) jamming with Dylan, 1993 (2) Tarantino cast Johnson as plantation owner Big Daddy in Django Unchained (3); on the cover of RS, 1986 (4); in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, 1970 (5).
Leading Man “I do recommend fame, highly,” Johnson says. “It’s the best drug I’ve ever had.”
The Adventures of Don Juan Johnson with Melanie Griffith, whom he married in 1976 and again in 1989 (1) ; they met when she was 14 and he was 22. As a high school senior in Kansas (2); with his current wife, Kelley (3).
By Erik Hedegaard
PHOTOGRAPH BY SAM JONES