remembering the overlooked and underrated

Miles Deep: The Second Ascension of Don Johnson

The inevitable has finally happened: Don Johnson is now a porno director; he goes by the name Miles Deep.

Or rather, he will once April 2011 arrives, when he co-stars with Christina Ricci and Stephen Dorff in Born to Be a Star, an Adam Sandler-produced comedy. Will this be the next step in the resurgence of Don Johnson? Does his sitcom pilot Southern Discomfort‘s failure to be picked up by ABC put a kink in the comeback plans? Should the second ascension of Don Johnson inspire heartwarming, fuzzy-wuzzy hope — or icy, gut-wrenching alarm? To find answers to these these burning questions and more, we will first need to take a look back in time at Mr. Johnson’s esteemed acting career.

Don Johnson in the 1960s and ’70s

 

Don Johnson dancing in public. He'd been watching a lot of Riverdance at the time.

 

Did you know that Johnson studied drama at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater? Are you a Johncionado whose heart warms when you hear the title of his first film,The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970)? Believe it or not, this seminal work about a 23-year-old Columbia University dropout (played by Don) who makes short films while trying to find his sexual identity has been relegated to the “cult classic” category. Perhaps it was unclear to audiences at the time that there was a future mega-star on the screen. Could Johnson’s charisma and talent possibly have been obscured by exchanges such as this one:

FRAN: What’s the film about, Stanley?

STANLEY SWEETHEART: Well, it’s about a boy…and a girl…and how they use their aesthetic distance as a means to keep their egocentric mechanisms separated from their id.

Andy Warhol would later call the film “the most quintessential, most truthful studio-made film about the ’60s counterculture.” Is it even conceivable for a film to have earned such exalted praise without Don Johnson’s unfailing magnetism propping it up? (This question is admittedly difficult to answer since, well, Stanley Sweetheart has gone out of print. The obsessive determined film hound can no doubt locate it, but should be prepared to part with a major organ for the privilege of viewing it. At the very least, you should ask yourself if you truly wish to seek out and talk to the kind of devoted hipster crank zealot masochist enthusiast who has been harboring a copy.)

 

The (Original) Dude

 

Johnson followed his film debut a year later with a supporting role in the surrealist musical Western Zachariah (1971), loosely based on the Herman Hesse novel Siddhartha. Strangely, this self-described “electric Western” was not a world-wide sensation, despite the luminous Dick Van Patten showing up to play someone called “The Dude,” which, with the aid of little (or absolutely no) research, I can only surmise is the inspiration for another iconic character with a strikingly similar name.

Don Johnson, fearless and undeterred by audiences’ disinterest, next tackled the role of Stanley Cole in The Harrad Experiment (1973), a film about a fictional college where students learn about, um, sexuality and, uh, experiment with one another. Hold on now — another movie about free love and sexual revolution? And Johnson again playing a student? And Melanie Griffith is an extra? Wait wait wait—Melanie Griffith wasn’t in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, this must be a different movie!

So: a different movie, yes, but one that yielded very similar results. Stardom still eluded Don Johnson. Then, however, came the game-changing role of Vic in director L. Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog (1975), a post-apocalyptic farce about a scrappy, moral-starved survivor (played by Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood. The film’s dark, twisted humor and oddly touching relationship between Vic and Blood have earned a devoted cult following over the years.

 

From left to right: Don Johnson, Homicidal Robot, Jason Robards

 

It was adapted from a novella by Harlan Ellison, who loathed the film and called its surprise ending, in which Vic kills and cooks his love interest in order to save his dying friend Blood, “moronic” and “chauvinist.” The movie, in fact, was wildly attacked for being misogynistic. (Ellison would later write a graphic novel sequel to the story, in which a guilt-ridden Vic is eaten alive by a very nasty — and none too small — mutant spider). While the ethics of the film are debatable, for our purposes we’ll focus on Don Johnson’s slightly manic performance and its repercussions rewards. For his portrayal of the young sociopath, Johnson was awarded the Saturn Award for Best Actor by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, placing him alongside such future recipients as Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait), Will Smith (I Am Legend), Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick), and, yes, even Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The real reward, however, was that this film—along with the rarely-mentioned 1976 film Return to Macon County, co-starring somebody named Nick Nolte—helped propel Johnson away from the clearly overrated wasteland of Hollywood film and toward the Eden more commonly known as network television.

The 1980s and the First Ascension

The late 1970s provided Don with numerous, short-lived TV roles (both for series and made-for-TV movies). The early 1980s gave us the dubious pleasure of watching Johnson play Elvis Presley (Elvis and the Beauty Queen, 1981) and some cop in Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), but finally came the big breakthrough: the role of Detective Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice (1984-1990). We needn’t belabor the cultural impact of Miami Vice. It is enough to know that it allowed the world to finally recognize the tremendous talent that was and is Don Johnson. And how does a TV mega star say thanks to the world? By giving it a big ol’ second helping of genius! In 1986, Don Johnson bequeathed to the world the pop masterpiece known as Heartbeat. If you’ve been living in a cave or were brought up by wolves with no musical taste and have no idea what I’m talking about, please do everyone a favor and watch the link below. If you are already familiar with Heartbeat and can barely find time to read this because you’re busy copying your vinyl Heartbeat onto cassette, then you probably already own a copy of the video and have it playing on a loop in your bedroom. Or, if you’re like me, it plays in your bathroom. (It’s a terrific laxative, really.)

 

Click the image above to watch the "Heartbeat" video. How much of it can you endure?

 

Amazingly, that whole music thing didn’t quite take off. Perhaps Johnson’s unhindered ego talent was proving too massive for the public to handle. This was, after all, a man who could not only act and look fly at the same time; not only a man who could pen songs and then sing perform those songs and act in videos for those same songs and in those videos lip-sync, sorta dance in a flashy shirt, and pretend to be a lovesick, hunky documentary filmmaker; not only could the man do all of these astonishing things, but he could also provide the voice for none other than Lt. Falcon in the highly anticipated direct-to-video G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987).

 

Don Johnson comforts his dying brother Duke. Is Don the one on the right or the one on the left? Maybe he's both. Heartbeat, people. Heartbeat.

 

Sadly, there is no way to know if more time would have proved the world able to fully accept his star powery genius. Miami Vice ended in 1990. Johnson was again lured away from the fertile lands of network television, seduced by the Hollywood-industrial complex’s promises of even greater fame.

Don Johnson: The Clinton Years

The Hot Spot (1990). Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Born Yesterday (1993). Tin Cup (1996). Classics all, and yet none of them afforded Don Johnson the acclaim he so desperately craved. It may have been ignorance on the part of critics. It may have been ignorance on the part of audiences. It may have been because most of the movies were terrible. No one can know for sure. What we do know is that in 1996, the Powers That Be (aka the Columbia Broadcast System) saw fit to create for Johnson a vehicle worthy of his talents. The vehicle was an electric yellow 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible. Johnson, always a sucker for any color that can be preceded by the word “electric,” was allowed to cruise around in the car, but only if he called himself Nash Bridges and pretended to be a divorced San Francisco police Inspector who solved crimes on a weekly basis with the help of his partner Cheech Marin, all while “reading” lines from something called a “script” and being filmed by a television camera crew. Although it meant putting musical aspirations on hold, Don Johnson generously took up the part and Nash Bridges began its triumphant run, lasting until 2000. Although it awaits final confirmation, there is—allegedly—no record of Mr. Johnson meeting President William Jefferson Clinton during this period. Or, for that matter, any other.


A Boy, His Dog, and a New Millennium

While the rest of the country was preoccupied with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and Heath Ledger, no one noticed an even greater tragedy looming: the death, autopsy, and cremation of Don Johnson’s acting career. His drama Just Legal was canceled by The WB after only three episodes. In 2008 he showed up as Admiral Burnett in Long Flat Balls 2. That there was an original Long Flat Balls (2006) is mystifying, to say the least, especially when you consider that it Don Johnson-less.

Enter filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

Don Johnson plunges deep.

Machete (2010), the bloody more-misses-than-hits send-up of violent, exploitive 1970s B-movies, stars leathery Danny Trejo as an ex-federale out for revenge and features Don Johnson as Lt. Von Stillson, a sadistic, xenophobic redneck who protects the Texas border by shooting every Mexican he can. As Johnson told Trailer Addict, “Von is the Devil on the border.” The role is not as prominent as it should be, of course. It does, however, allow the former Sonny Crockett to ooze menace and chew the scenery with all his considerable might. The venerable Steve Norwood of Red Carpet Crash called the performance “flat-out terrific.” Critical powerhouse NBC Chicago reported that we’ve “never seen Don Johnson so evil before onscreen.” The performance, strangely, went largely ignored by less reputable publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone. What are we to make of this?

Anyone who has seen the film will notice that the villains are severely underdeveloped. Writers Robert and Alvaro Rodriguez mean for these roles to be ironic, unexpected, and hopefully re-invigorating for Johnson and co-stars Steven Seagal and Jeff Fahey. Unfortunately, the writers lack the talent of, say, their pal Quentin Tarantino. Whatever his faults may be, Tarantino is indisputably brilliant when it comes to creating surprising, juicy roles for actors who have been dismissed by mainstream Hollywood (think Pam Grier, Robert Forster, David Carradine, and Daryl Hannah). His villains are especially arresting (Kurt Russell’s role and performance in 2007’s Death Proof is a prime example). If Rodriguez had asked his pal Quentin to punch up the villains of Machete, maybe Don Johnson would have had more room to play. Maybe Von Stillman wouldn’t suffer death at the hands of Lindsay Lohan, of all people. As it is, though, the performance shows promise. It demonstrates plainly that this is not the Miami Vice actor that everyone thinks they know.

This is why we have spent so much time looking back at Johnson’s career. I do not wish for the proposal I am about to make to be viewed simply as tongue-in-cheek and/or a snarky joke. The actor/producer/musician/heartthrob named Don Johnson has had career lulls — but what great entertainer hasn’t? He has remained, however, a desperate man willing to do anything for a buck. Some might call that whorish. If you’re Michael Caine, it’s called professionalism. You can decide which adjective you like better.

In an interview with MTV News (May 13, 2010), when asked if Machete marks another stage in his career, Johnson replied: “[I]t’s kind of a fun time for me because I don’t have to be slave to the former Don Johnson image or any of that.” That’s right, Don. Now is the time for you to show us what you can really do. You will not lament the demise of your sitcom Southern Discomfort. It was beneath you anyway. You will leave TV behind and finally conquer the silver screen.

Which is why I propose that Don Johnson pursue a project that hundreds—nay, thousands—of fanboys have been longing for: a sequel to A Boy and His Dog. The idea is not mine, merely the timing. According to Wikipedia, which has an extensive entry on the film, actor/director L. Q. Jones had intentions for a sequel entitled A Girl and Her Dog but the project was terminated when Tiger, who played the dog Blood, died. But who says it has to be same dog? Now is the perfect time for Johnson to reprise his role as Vic. Handled properly, it could be the sort of dark, quirky, morbidly funny, visionary sci-fi film that sets new standards and has a strong female lead. For Johnson it could be the kind of larger-than-life performance that changes public perception of an actor. Think John Wayne in True Grit, Denzel Washington in Training Day, Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Yes, Rourke is definitely the best example. If Don Johnson were given such a complex starring role (come now, Darren Aronofsky, what are you waiting for? Have you not seen Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man? Did you really save Rourke just to leave his co-star behind?), then we can only wildly speculate about what might then follow. Could Johnson not battle Robert Downey, Jr. in the inevitable Iron Man 3? Are there any roles still to be filled in The Avengers? A delicious chill runs through me when I imagine Johnson speaking Joss Whedon’s dialogue. Could not the inevitable sequel to the mind-numbing The Expendables feature him battling Sylvester Stallone to the death? Johnson would need to undergo a ridiculous amount of plastic surgery beforehand in order to qualify for a role, we know–but there’s still time!

There is always the risk that a Don Johnson renaissance might lead to another pop music masterpiece. Some risks are worth taking. We must be bold in our hopes. Regardless of what follows the upcoming Born to Be a Star, I am pleased to see that Mr. Johnson is returning to his film roots. Comic material dealing with sex? It must fit like an old, soiled latex glove. But Johnson’s come a long way since Stanley Sweetheart. Once he was the student. Now he is the master. But you can call him Miles Deep.



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