‘Miami Vice’: Why NBC Wasn’t Sold on Casting Don Johnson Right Away

No one will blame you for believing Don Johnson was the obvious choice to play the lead on Miami Vice (1984-89). By the start of season 2, Johnson had become a household name for his portrayal of Detective Sonny Crockett. And Miami Vice had become the hottest show on TV.

It certainly didn’t start that way. As seasons 3-4 showrunner Dick Wolf later pointed out, Miami Vice didn’t come storming out of the gate. The show only took off after season 1, when reruns appeared over the summer months. Then Miami Vice made its move in season 2.

The decision to cast Johnson also didn’t come easy. It was only after a long process of auditions and screen tests that producers and NBC executives gave Johnson (then 34) the role of Crockett. Given his career to that point, it made sense for NBC to go slow.

Don Johnson had worked on several failed pilots before ‘Miami Vice’

In a 1985 Rolling Stone article, Emily Benedek gave a sense of how long the casting for the pilot went on. “Ten Crocketts and ten Tubbs auditioned for the parts,” Benedek wrote. “Johnson and Thomas each read three or four times with different people.”

Looking back on the casting for the pilot, director Thomas Carter offered a hint as to why Johnson didn’t immediately jump out at producers. “Don Johnson had done other pilots, they hadn’t worked,” Carter told the Television Academy in 2013. “He was not the first choice.”

Carter emphasized that the network didn’t have any particular first choice. Nonetheless, Johnson didn’t seem like the answer. “The network wasn’t that excited about Don,” Carter recalled. Johnson’s earlier drug and alcohol problems may have played a part in that.

“I think my values were kind of f*cked up before,” Johnson told Rolling Stone in ’85. “And I didn’t know what I wanted. I was always interested in the next party.” But Johnson felt like he’d found a home on Miami Vice by the start of season 2. “We’re a bunch of misfits, really,” he said of the cast. “Every one of these people has paid his dues.”

Johnson won his only major acting award playing Sonny Crockett

Don Johnson sitting in driver's seat at Crockett on 'Miami Vice'
MIAMI VICE: Don Johnson as Det. James ‘Sonny’ Crockett | Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank

Four decades later, Miami Vice remains the signature role of Johnson’s acting career. The majority of award nominations he’s received were for Miami Vice. And of his three major TV award nods (two Golden Globes, one Emmy), all three were for the show. (Johnson won the ’86 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series.)

His career didn’t end there, of course. The following decade, Johnson went on to star on hit cop show Nash Bridges (1996-2001). In the new century, his role as Eduardo Sanchez (Kenny Powers’ father) on Eastbound & Down represented something of a comeback.

That continued with Johnson’s performance in Quentin Tarantino’s hit film Django Unchained (2012) and, most recently, his role in Knives Out (2019). For his part in the ensemble casts of those films, Johnson received his first awards nominations in decades.

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