Miami Vice and a Good Woman Save Bad Boy Don Johnson

updated 12/03/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 01:00AM

Drugs and drink and compulsive sex and suicidal spending sprees: They are so integral a part of the clichéd Hollywood life that it seems de rigueur, if you are an actor, to pass through a lost-soul phase on your way to stardom—if only to amass your own war stories and join your confreres when they graduate to Sobriety Deluxe. The most popular scenario involves indulging in a series of drugged and drunken scrapes, failing at love, hitting bottom and being rescued by a woman who inspires you to grow up. Under her gentle guidance you seek professional help, dose yourself with yogurt, embrace monogamy and dump the coke down the John. You rejoice when your madonna ex machina conceives a child, and you herald its birth as a metaphor for your own deliverance. And you become bankable even as you wrestle with your demons—because if you do not, no one will be around to hear your tale of sin and redemption.

Meet Don Johnson of Miami Vice. At 33, he was a dissipated specimen who had gone from a troubled boyhood in Flat Creek, Mo. into a quick-rise career punctuated by serial affairs, fleeting marriages and a four-year liaison with Melanie (Body Double) Griffith, who was 14 to his 22 when they became bedfellows. In 1976 he made his third trip to the altar in order to save their relationship. Don plunged into drugs and drink even as the job offers rolled in. With a high-profile flop (1970's The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart) and a cult classic (1975's A Boy and His Dog) behind him, he snagged a lucrative string of TV pilots and guested on shows like Police Story. But success unnerved him, and by the late '70s he was steeping himself in cocaine, pot and liquor.

"I never drank or did drugs while I was working," reports Don, 34, "but brother, when they said wrap, I would try to set the land speed record. I knew how to party too—I was one of those people, if I had it, you had it. I traveled in a crowd—I would say, 'Hey, I have an idea—let's all go to Mexico City and have some Mexican food. Call the airport and let's go.' "

His romantic entanglements alone were the stuff of high drama. He fell in love with the "incredibly precocious" Melanie in 1972, while co-starring in The Harrad Experiment with her mother, Tippi Hedren. Tippi made no protest when her daughter began bunking with Don, and although he has admitted, "I did feel a little strange picking her up after school," he and his pubescent lover established a relationship that was "full of fire." They split in 1975, only to tie the knot the next year.

"I had been with [ex-Miss World] Marjorie Wallace most of the night," Don says, "and I left her place and came back to [mine], and Melanie called at about 4 or 5 in the morning. We professed undying love and flew to Las Vegas and got married."

His live-in relationship with Patti D'Arbanville, the 33-year-old actress who earned plaudits in The Main Event, began on a similarly impetuous note. After meeting in 1970, they nursed an attraction through her two failed marriages and his entanglements. When they ran into one another at a hyperchic L.A. restaurant two years ago, Don deserted his then-squeeze Tanya Tucker to leave with Patti. "She moved in that night," he says, "and we stayed in bed for about eight days. The houseboy kept bringing food and water."

The jubilant bedfest precipitated Don's next crisis. Although he had believed himself to be "shooting blanks," he impregnated Patti, who promptly decided to keep the baby. "I can't commit to marrying right now," he told her. "I'm not into that either," replied the understanding D'Arbanville.

Patti and Jesse Wayne, who will be 2 on Dec. 7, live with Don in a bungalow in Santa Monica—a frumpy two-bedroom model fitted up with earnest kitsch like a wall plaque that adjures, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." While Jesse gurgles happily, Don remembers the day he swore off his addictions.

"I walked into the breakfast room one morning," he says, "and the sun was shining and the birds were singing, and Patti was feeding the baby. I came staggering in and sat down and looked at them, and she looked at me and I knew that if I didn't do something she was going to leave. So I said, 'Patti, I'm a drunk and a drug addict, and I'm going to do something about it.' "

Patti, as it happened, had been contemplating a split. "I was watching this beautiful and talented man spin out," she says, "and I thought that maybe the only way to help was to leave him." Not that she hadn't had her own bouts with booze and drugs. But she had conquered them with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, and she knew what was ahead for Don.

Both of them term his recovery "a miracle." Just 45 days after she took him to his first AA meeting, he had dropped his addictions cold turkey. "You ask for a higher power to help you," Johnson explains. "I got down on my knees and humbled myself and said, 'I can't do this alone.' "

Johnson's professional renaissance coincided with his new sobriety. "I had pretty much killed my career [by letting] my body get out of shape from the drugs and alcohol," he says. "When I would go out for roles, they would say, 'I think he's had it—let's bring in the relief pitcher.' "

He had to muscle his way in to see NBC executives, who finally agreed last winter to cast him as Sonny Crockett, the Miami Vice detective who drives a black Ferrari and keeps an alligator named Elvis. When the hour-long drama (which is budgeted at $1 million-plus per episode) started shooting in Florida last spring, Johnson brought a special touch to the part—acting as informal adviser for the drug-dealing scenes. "Whenever I see something that doesn't jibe, I'll say, 'Wait a minute, guys, this isn't the way it goes down.' They know that I know, and they respect my opinion," he reports.

With the gritty, offbeat series a hit (critics have raved about its MTV-inspired effects), Don is living in a $3,000-a-month, five-bedroom house in Miami. His life there is relentlessly wholesome. When he isn't on the set, he is pumping iron or stoking up on "clean foods" or writing rock songs (such as two collaborations, Blind Love and Can't Take It With You, with Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts on the 1979 gold record Enlightened Rogues). He cavorts with his family and wields his own war tales, and he supplies the hopeful coda that sounds so au courant. "I knew I could change my life," he says. "And I'm getting better every day."

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