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- June 20, 1994
- Vol. 41
- No. 23
Not So Magic Johnson
Struggling with Demon Alcohol, Don Johnson Takes a Drastic Step to Dry Out. But Can His Troubled Marriage to Melanie Griffith Survive?
But that redoubt of domestic bliss came tumbling down last week when the 44-year-old Johnson—after a binge of boozing, brawling and partying—checked into the Betty Ford Center outside Palm Springs to undergo treatment for alcoholism and abuse of prescription drugs. A terse statement from his publicist said only that he "is expected to remain there for a period of four weeks." The message between the lines, however, was clear—an admitted alcoholic who sobered up in 1983, Johnson was again out of control, and his five-year second marriage to Griffith was no longer on the rocks but probably in ruins. "Some people fall off the wagon," Johnson had said jokingly of his recent battle with the bottle on The Arsenio Hall Show on April 21. "I fell off a building."
The couple's sprawling home in Colorado now sits empty. Griffith, 36, moved out last month and resettled nearby with children Alexander, 8, and Dakota, 4 (Jesse, 11, stayed with his father). The actress "is very low and very unhappy," says a close family friend. "Melanie is going east the minute the kids-are out of school." Supposedly she is also planning to move ahead with the divorce proceedings she began three months ago—a big change of heart from last month, when she still hoped for a reconciliation despite rumors that Johnson had fathered a child with a woman in Toronto while shooting the movie Guilty as Sin. Don is "no angel. He is not easy," Melanie tells the July issue of Vanity Fair. "It is hard for me to imagine life without him. But we are changing in different ways."
Griffith herself admits to falling off the wagon lately after six years of sobriety. Johnson, meanwhile, didn't just hit bottom again—in recent months, he began bouncing wildly from heavy-duty party to scary car accident to drunken radio interview as he intermittently sought help. Describing his alcoholism as "a baffling and bizarre disease" on Arsenio six weeks ago, he disclosed that he had started treatment as an outpatient with a specialist in Los Angeles. But that cure didn't take; between visits, Johnson would resume his habit of drinking fine wine chased with shots of tequila. Finally, at 1 a.m. on June 3, Johnson called his publicist, Elliot Mintz, and asked him to come to his Beverly Hills mansion. At Johnson's request, Mintz arranged a 6:30 a.m. flight on Johnson's private jet to Palm Springs and escorted the star to the Ford center. "He walked in on his own," says Mintz. "But I must tell you that for Don, it was a very long walk from the car up the steps to that door."
Johnson had a weakness for wine, women and drugs even before he married 18-year-old Melanie Griffith on little more than an impulse back in 1976. Though the couple's problems with drugs and alcohol contributed to their quick divorce, neither went straight immediately. Johnson continued to drink while scrambling for TV parts and after fathering son Jesse with actress Patti D'Arbanville in 1982. A typical day, he told a Washington newspaper, "included a case of beer, a few martinis, several bottles of the best wine and some good Napoleon brandy after dinner." Then he joined Alcoholics Anonymous—and in 1983 landed the role of the suntanned, pastel-suited stud Sonny Crockett in the hit TV series Miami Vice.
Griffith, in the meantime, had married and divorced actor Steven Bauer, with whom she had son Alexander in 1986. While working steadily in such films as 1984's Body Double and 1986's Something Wild. Griffith was, she has admitted, using cocaine and liquor. "What I did was drink myself to sleep at night," she said. "If I wasn't with someone, I was an unhappy girl." While on the set of Working Girl in 1988—where she was reportedly fined for the lost time caused by her drunkenness—she reached out to Johnson, who, as fortune would have it, was available, having just ended an affair with Barbra Streisand. At Johnson's insistence, Griffith checked into the renowned Hazelden clinic in Minnesota. The following year they remarried and four months later had a daughter, Dakota Mayi.
The couple fell it was important to be apart from the pressures and temptations of Hollywood. And so at a cost of $600.000, they renovated their three-story, 7,500-square-foot ranch house—and became model citizens in Woody Creek outside Aspen. They enrolled the children in the private, progressive Aspen Community School and attended charity events; Don improved his golf game, became an active member of the Woody Creek Caucus, a homeowners' association cum community group, and even played the part of Superdad. When son Jesse's class went on an outing to Denver last year, Johnson volunteered to be a driver. "He was exhausted because he was trying to memorize a script," says Jesse's teacher, Cami Hull, "but he took time out and even took the kids to dinner. He was there for his son."
Don and Melanie also seemed to be there for each other. With his career idling after a string of dud movies, including 1988's Sweet Hearts Dance and 1990's The Hot Spot, Johnson took a backseat to his more successful wife. He advised Griffith on what roles to choose, and Melanie deferred to him in matters professional—unfortunately, in some cases. She appeared in 1990's disastrous Bonfire of the Vanities and reportedly turned down Anjelica Huston's role in the acclaimed 1990 film The Grifters to costar instead with her husband in Paradise, which flopped. Still they stuck together, costarring in 1993's Born Yesterday. And many on the Toronto set of 1992's Guilty as Sin remember Johnson spending all his free lime with his family, taking them out to dinner when they visited the set or flying by private plane to join them in Aspen or their Beverly Hills mansion.
But there were rumblings that all was not as it seemed. Aspen gossip over the past year has linked Johnson to several women, though none have been named. In March, New York City's Daily News ran an item saying that a Toronto woman who claimed to have had an affair with Johnson while he was filming Guilty as Sin gave birth to his child last fall (the still-unidentified woman has yet to file a paternity suit).
Johnson's latest bout with alcohol apparently began on the Toronto set. "One glass of wine turned into two, then into a bottle and then he was out of control," says his personal spokesman, Mintz. "That old demon snuck up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and seduced him—and he went willingly." Johnson's first public alcohol-related embarrassment came late one night in March at the Whiskey Bar at West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis hotel. When actor Gary Oldman, the star of Bram Stoker's Dracula, declined Johnson's offer to have a nightcap. Johnson reportedly started a heated argument that turned into a shoving match before bystanders had to break it up.
Johnson was also thick-tongued and pugnacious when he appeared on the Ron & Ron radio show in St. Petersburg, Fla., last April (see box, page 93). He began smoldering when cohosts Ron Bennington and Ron Diaz asked about his divorce and snapped when one of them suggested he was plastered. Before the nasty nine-minute exchange was over, Johnson, slurring his words, let fly with a host of expletives, claiming the right to say anything he wanted because "I'm rich and famous and bigger than you."
In May, Johnson took his bad-boy act on the road when he and son Jesse jetted to Hong Kong for the opening of the colony's Planet Hollywood. Johnson seemed sober enough as he barhopped in the company of fellow investors in the restaurant chain, including Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. But at the preopening-night party, "he had very glazed eyes and he was wired," says one attendee. "He was not a well man." A local entertainment reporter noted that after jamming with Willis's band onstage the following night, Johnson seemed unable to leave the club without assistance. Bodyguards helped him out—with son Jesse in tow. "I felt sorry for the kid," she says.
On the eve of returning to the States, Johnson threw his own bash in his suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze and six young Chinese women were the only guests. An eyewitness reports seeing Johnson in the bathroom "lining up cocaine on the sink," but did not see him snort up.
For Johnson the wake-up call probably came on June 1 when he returned to Aspen to drop Jesse off with D'Arbanville, who was picking up her son for the summer. At 4 p.m., while driving with Jesse in his Jeep Cherokee, Johnson drove off Little Woody Creek Road and rolled down an adjacent slope; the vehicle, which landed on its wheels, was badly smashed and had to be towed. He didn't report the accident until five hours later, and authorities did not issue a citation. (Jesse was unhurt, and Johnson suffered "a bump on his head," said a slate highway patrolman.) But two witnesses say they saw Johnson at Woody Creek Tavern earlier that day, having lunch and "drinking margaritas" in the company of "a blond beauty in her late 20s." The next day, he flew to Los Angeles.
At the Ford center, Johnson is already a million miles away from that life. After three days there, he was sounding "very strong and very determined," according to Mintz, who says Don had also spoken to Melanie. Aside from drying out, Johnson knows what he wants: "You have to forgive and forget and get the hell on down the road—Melanie and I will always be together," he has said. But real life is rarely so simple. Mintz, for one, seems to understand that the actor's marriage may very well be part of the high price of alcohol abuse. "The final chapter," he says, "is that Don Johnson can never have another drink."
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles, VICKIE BANE in Denver, ANDREA PAWLYNA in Hong Kong and NATASHA STOYNOFF in Toronto
- Joyce Wagner,
- Vickie Bane,
- Andrea Pawlyna,
- Natasha Stoynoff.
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