Philip Michael Thomas is full of ambition, full of goodwill and full of charm. Perhaps most of all, he is full of himself. He has been compared to nearly every great man in history. The funny thing is, he's the one doing all the comparing. Consider: "I'm like Gandhi in a sense," he says. "I don't mind walking with the people. I will take off my suits and ties and get down there and work." Or, generously referring to Don Johnson, his Miami Wee co-star: "We've become bigger than the Beatles." But wait, there's more: "There are only a few who will be the Fords, the Edisons, the Carnegies, and I think I'm in that number." Whew. If Freud were around to analyze this ego, he would need two couches.
Perhaps PMT deserves forgiveness for these lofty, if a little premature, pronouncements. After all, he is 36 and waited 17 years to strike gold as an actor with the role in Vice as fashion plate Ricardo Tubbs. He exudes industrial strength self-confidence, as if he has marched through life merely waiting for the world to answer his wake-up call. Now, with Vice shimmying into the Top 10 this season, he has reason to think of himself as a bona fide, bankable sex object. Why else, he says, would women waltz up to him and murmur in his diamond-studded ear, "Oh, God, I love your thighs. I want you to take me to bed with you!"
Thomas is as driven as he is appealing. He has all but thrown his arm out of whack lunging for the brass ring. As he puts it, "I didn't get into this business to make $1.86." PMT recently spent some $75,000 for a run-down Miami movie house he's converting into a deluxe 550-seat theater, recording studio and arts center. "I have found total satisfaction in the arts," says Thomas, who sees himself as a sort of cultural missionary. First on the marquee when the theater opens in early 1986? What else but the "Philip Michael Thomas Film Festival," featuring many of his 11 forgotten movies. "I will have a captive audience, and I can teach them techniques that made me great," he says.
Then there is the PMT women's clothing line, targeted for national distribution, which debuted in October in a chain of Florida stores. And last month his first single, Just the Way I Planned It, hit the record counters followed by his first album, Living the Book of My Life, part of his multimillion deal with Atlantic Records.
Like the Soviets, PMT believes in five-year plans. His is simple: "I want to be remembered for being a pioneer and a builder in an industry I love." Don't question him. "I don't care about people who don't share my vision," he says.
Another day, another 14 hours on location, this time at a deserted 320-acre estate in sweltering Miami. As usual things are not going smoothly. Director and co-star Edward James Olmos (he won an Emmy as Lieutenant Castillo) is re-shooting a crucial scene. Johnson, idle for the moment, is restless. "Let's get going!" he snarls to no one in particular. He snaps his fingers and immediately an obedient bodyguard fetches his chair. Johnson sits and sulks. A mellow Thomas, on the other hand, chats up the crew and signs autographs, something he swears he enjoys.
Cut to 9 p.m. Darkness has descended, and the shoot is finally over. Outside Thomas' 40-foot motor home off the set, some 100 delirious fans scream, "We love you, Philip...." Inside, the weary but amiable object of their desire, wearing a white sport shirt and black pants, settles into a banquette and sips orange juice that has been freshly squeezed by a bodyguard. He is sporting his trademark gold medallion, which is engraved with the letters EGOT. He says it stands for "energy, growth, opportunity and talent." (Nearly everyone else says it stands for the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony he's determined to win.) "Television has become reality to 90 percent of the people," he says. "Women see themselves being made love to by me and Don. We are necessary for their fulfillment." He stops talking long enough to savor the fans' chants of "Phil-ip! Phil-ip!" Then he shakes his head. "They do that all over the world," he says. "It's amazing."
There were early clues that Thomas should have been branded with a warning from the Surgeon General. It was in the sixth grade, under a bright moon and next to a trash can, that he discovered his power over women. He tenderly leaned over to kiss his first girlfriend, and "she fainted! She just fell over. Boom! I thought I killed her."
He's more tight-lipped about his current romantic life—the better, he says, to preserve his sexy-single image. As it turns out, he has been married once and has eight children. He's unofficial dad to three; the other five are biologically his by four different women. The oldest is his wife's daughter, Monica, 20. (They're frequently mistaken for brother and sister.) The youngest is India Serene, 9 months. He says he supports the entire clan. "I wish I could spend more time with my kids. But this show is like indentured servitude." Thomas is mum on matters familial. "It's not a matter of hiding them, I love them tremendously. But people throw stones at those you love, and in protecting those that I love, I stay silent."
Those who love him haven't always reciprocated. One former lover, actress Sheila (B.J. and the Bear) DeWindt, recently did the unforgivable and turned up on the cover of Jet with their daughters, Melody, 2, and the baby India Serene. Complained one Thomas confidant of the article in which DeWindt reveals their relationship: "She did it because she is out of work and wanted the publicity."
These days Thomas has little time to reach out and touch somebody. "I really don't date," he says. That should be good news to Dhaima, 37, the woman he calls his "partner" and his on-again, off-again, on-again companion of nine years. She is also his full-time administrative assistant. Dhaima is cagey about their status. Asked if they planned to marry, she has said, "I've been with Philip eight lifetimes. He is Solomon...and I am Sheba. And Sheba didn't come to Solomon to get married. She came for wisdom."
Even if he were to take a vacation, romance would not likely be on the itinerary. "I love women, don't misunderstand me," he says. "But I would rather concentrate on building an empire than fall in love and lock up."
Yes, ladies, lock up. As in jail. As in let me outta here. "I will always be a gypsy, and if a woman is going to love me, she will have to love the gypsy spirit in me," he says. "This is the thing in the past most women have not understood. They want to embrace the physical relationship and settle down. That means death to me. I gotta fly."
Spend time with Thomas and you notice things beyond his drop-dead hazel eyes, the suggestive arch in his right eyebrow and his chronic flirting. His conversation, for example, is laced with such sugarcoated, inspirational aphorisms as "My vehicle has room for only one, but you're welcome to tag on to my mind." Come again? He calls his philosophy of positive thinking "Perfectionistics." In 1983 he published a brochure full of sayings, and has handed out several thousand. Says one friend: "No matter what's happened to Philip, he never gets depressed."
He was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Lulu McMorris. His father, Louis Diggs, was a Westinghouse plant foreman. Philip has seven half brothers and sisters. All use the surname Thomas, the last name of Lulu's first husband. As a youngster Philip seldom stepped out of line, perhaps because his stepfather and Lulu's second husband, George Liggins, was a onetime light heavyweight boxing contender. "I've always been basically a clean liver," says Thomas, who doesn't smoke or drink. Philip's family moved to California in 1953 and settled in the Los Angeles area. Even as a youth, "I was always a dreamer," he says. He dreamed of becoming a sea captain. A singer. A movie star. He entered school talent shows and started acting in his church's theater group. At 15, he became director of the Pentecostal Delman Heights Four Square Gospel Church choir and had what he called an "encounter" with Christ. He considered becoming a minister and received a one-year scholarship to the predominantly black Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., where he studied religion and philosophy.
After one year he transferred to the University of California at Riverside. That's when his interest in the ministry switched to another vocation. He saw a production of Hair in L.A. "I said, 'Wow! That's a very religious show. I want to be in that.' " He auditioned at a cattle call (he's never had an acting lesson) and landed the role of Hud with the San Francisco company. Eventually he quit school to concentrate on an acting career and soon was appearing on Broadway in No Place to be Somebody. He also did some movies, though never in roles intended for, say, Laurence Olivier. His first, in 1972, was the low budget Stigma, about "sex and venereal disease on an island." Later he turned to TV, landing spots on Toma, Police Woman, Strike Force and Roots: The Next Generation.
It was slightly more than two years ago that fate smiled on him in earnest: His agent sent him the script for Miami Wee (then called Gold Coast). "I said, 'This is great. I want to do this.' " So did a few hundred others. He auditioned and was rejected. "I told my agent they were nuts," he remembers. "I said, 'No one can do this but me.' " Meanwhile the creators tinkered in the casting lab, struggling for the perfect Tubbs-Crockett combination. Weeks later Thomas was called back and eventually matched with Johnson. Without rehearsing, "We read, and the magic was happening," he says. "It was like fire and air." (He was air.)
On-camera their chemistry may be incendiary but off-camera they seldom socialize. Rumors abound that there is friction between the stars, but Thomas denies it. "I like Don a lot," he says. "We have a good time."
There certainly would be grounds for hard feelings if Thomas were that kind of guy. For starters he appears on the air less than Johnson. Also he seems to be everybody's second-favorite cover boy this year. "I liked that Don was getting the publicity," Thomas says. "I wanted the mystique. The bigger he got, the bigger we got."
Thomas also claims not to mind being paid several thousand dollars less than Johnson's nearly $30,000 an episode. Early on, he nearly stormed off the show because of the inequity, but now "I'm at the point where the money doesn't really matter to me," Thomas says. "If at this time I'm not worth $50,000 a week it doesn't matter."
He certainly doesn't live in a grand style, preferring to pump his money into his company's artistic projects. He spends most of his time in the motor home or at his ocean view suite at the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove. (Dhaima and Philip's mom, Lulu, have nearby suites.) He still drives a brown 1979 Volvo station wagon, and away from the set he prefers jeans and unbuttoned shirts to the $500 Hugo Boss suits and Versace shirts that he wears with such flair on the show. He is also making sure his family gets a slice of Vice. Mom runs his fan club (they receive more than 1000 letters a week), and brother George, 26, is one of his bodyguards. One uncle is his accountant, another is his lawyer.
As for his future, Thomas is certain it will be rosy. (What else would he say?) "I'm locked in as one of the showbiz superstars," he says. "Like Dr. Kildare is forever. Telly Savalas is forever."
Should Miami Vice not be forever, Thomas is doing his best to see that his income will be. He's weighing endorsement offers from airlines and carmakers. "I'm living the great American dream, like Ted Turner and Ronald Reagan. When I was at the White House, President Reagan said, 'Philip Michael Thomas is one of our finest.' " Thomas pauses. "Do you think I dream too much?" he asks a visitor. No, Philip. Just talk too much.
- David Wallace.