Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Don Johnson spent a number of years bouncing between TV and film, getting regular work without ever managing to pull a career-making role, but all that changed after he was cast as Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice. Johnson subsequently found additional small-screen success as the title character in Nash Bridges, but most of his work in recent years has been in film, including a memorable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Currently, Johnson can be seen in a supporting role in Cold In July, now in theaters and on VOD.
Cold In July (2014)—“Jim Bob”
Don Johnson: Jim Mickle [the director] sent me the script, or his casting people did. Somehow the script got into my hands, and I read it, and I was taken by how it had different rhythms and tempos, and I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen by page 10. And then I met with him, and when you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you kind of get a sense for directors that have film sense and those that don’t… and sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong. [Laughs.] But I was pretty dead on with Jim Mickle. He’s gifted. I usually don’t even watch my movies, but I’ve seen this one a couple of times!
The A.V. Club: Did you enjoy playing Jim Bob?
DJ: Oh, I loved it. He’s a fun guy, you know? He’s kind of a compendium of people I’ve known in my life. You know, actors prepare in funny ways. So I did all my preparation and everything, and that’s what came out.
AVC: The movie was based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale. Did you read it in advance, or did you just let the script guide you?
DJ: No, I don’t do that. [Hesitates.] It’s not a steadfast rule, but the book isn’t the screenplay, and the screenplay isn’t the production of the movie, and the production of the movie isn’t the final movie. You know what I mean? I find it more efficient to confine myself to what’s on the page that we’re going to film. Then you don’t have these ghosts that are lingering from the book. Storytelling on film is very different from that of a book, because it’s visual images, so I find that if I just focus on that, I’m better at the storytelling.
The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart (1970)—“Stanley Sweetheart”
DJ: My God. I thought that was a well-kept secret. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was my first film, and it was very instructive, because I was the lead in the movie. It was an MGM movie, and it was made by [producer] Martin Poll.
It was part of those youth-movement films that the studios were trying to make to catch up and catch that marketplace, and Stanley Sweetheart was written by Robert Westbrook—I think his mom was [gossip columnist] Sheilah Graham—and it was a big book during that era, but as a movie, it damn near buried me! [Laughs.] It damn near sent me back to Missouri!
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
DJ: I did some school plays. But I was playing football in my last year of high school, and I got kicked out of my business class for falling asleep, and the counselor said, “Well, the only thing left open is during the seventh period, when you’re having your football practice. So you have to quit football, and you have to go into this drama class.” And I went, “Oh my God, they’re going to make so much fun of me on the football team. What the fuck!” [Laughs.]
So I went in, and… it wasn’t easy to get into the class. I had to audition for the teacher, and I’d never really auditioned for anything. I met her first at her classroom door, and she said, “Can you sing?” I went, “Uh, yeah.” She said, “Can you dance?” I went, “Well, a little.” She said, “Come back at four o’clock, and if you can get in the musical, you can get in my class.” So I went back, and I sang, I danced, I read a scene… and she gave me the lead in West Side Story! So that was the kiss of death right there. [Laughs.]
She saw something in me that I didn’t know I had, and she started throwing Shakespeare at me, and Molière and Brecht and Sam Johnson and Jean Genet and, I mean, just incredible playwrights and authors and things like that, and forcing me to read them. And they weren’t required stuff for the classroom, but it was required for me. For me to get a passing grade, I had to complete all of these assignments. I thought she was picking on me, but what she was actually doing was civilizing me. [Laughs.]
And then I got a scholarship to the University Of Kansas in theater, and I was there for about a year and a half, and then I got hired out of the University of Kansas for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I was doing plays and repertory out there, and then I got hired to do another play in Los Angeles. I got discovered in that play for Stanley Sweetheart, and then it went on from there. But it was kind of a bumpy 10 or 12 years or so before Miami Vice. [Laughs.] Maybe 14 or 15!
Dead Bang (1989)—“Jerry Beck”
DJ: That was amazing, because it was a real-life character. It was an actual cop, and he wrote the script. John Frankenheimer was the director, and of course I knew who John Frankenheimer was, and I was excited to work with him. Jerry was a homicide cop in L.A., and he had curly hair, so I permed my hair, which was a, uh, very interesting choice. Because I kind of looked like a… It’s kind of odd. I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t know if you know a lot about perms, but if you do them, they relax after about two or three weeks. So my hair goes through these amazing transitions of being really tight and really wavy and sort of goofy-looking. [Laughs.]
Tin Cup (1996)—“David Simms”
DJ: David Simms was a blast to play, because I actually knew who on the PGA Tour the character was based on. I can’t say who it is, but… I liked that character because he was the embodiment of how all of these athletes behave: There’s their on-camera personality, and then there’s the real competitor behind the scenes. He was another fun character to play, though. And, of course, I loved working with Ron Shelton and Kevin Costner, and Rene Russo I’ve known since she was, like, 15. I used to drive her and Melanie [Griffith] and Rita Wilson—Tom Hanks’ wife—to their modeling gigs because none of them had a license. [Laughs.]
AVC: Not a bad side gig to have.
DJ: No, it was a lot of fun. Hey, I ended up marrying one of them! [Laughs.]
Nash Bridges (1996-2001)—“Nash Bridges”
AVC: You also worked with Cheech Marin on Tin Cup, but what’s the timeline on that and Nash Bridges? Which came first?
DJ: Very funny that you should ask, because the very first day of filming Tin Cup, Cheech and I were doing a scene—the scene where I show up and ask Kevin’s character, Roy McAvoy, to be in my charity golf tournament—and I already had the script for Nash Bridges, because Hunter Thompson and I had conceived the idea, but we’d originally conceived Cheech’s character as your typical drunk Irish cop. So I’m doing the scene with Cheech, and I said, “Come by my trailer at lunch, will ya?” He said, “Sure!” So he came by my trailer, and I handed him the script, and I said, “I want you to read this, and wherever you see the name ‘Donnellan’…” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I know: Dominguez.” [Laughs.] So that’s how it came to be: I just felt the chemistry, and I just knew we’d be great together.
Bastardi (2008)—“Sante Patene”
Django Unchained (2012)—“Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett”
AVC: You were in Django Unchained in 2012, but a few years before that, you did a few films overseas, and in one of them, Bastardi, you worked with the original Django.
DJ: That’s right: Franco [Nero]! Yeah, that was one of those weird things where I couldn’t get a fucking job here, and… well, I was getting offers, but they weren’t very good ones. But then I started getting these offers from overseas, to do these Italian movies. And the fantastic thing about doing these movies was that everyone was from a different country. So you’d be in a scene with five people, and one of them was speaking German, one of them was speaking Italian, one of them was speaking French, somebody else is speaking Spanish, and I’m speaking English… or my version of it, anyway. So we’d be doing these scenes in different languages, but actors are actors everywhere. We just understood the emotions and the drama of it, but it didn’t really matter what the fucking person was saying. [Laughs.] We just did the scenes… and it was actually kind of good!
AVC: So how did you find your way into Django Unchained? Did Quentin Tarantino come after you?
DJ: Yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time, and… well, that’s a long story. I’ll keep it to the simplified version: He’d written a different part for me, and then he had to cast someone else to secure the financing, so he said, “Well, just pick a part that you want to play.” So I called him, and I said, “Well, why don’t we do the character of Spencer Bennett?” And he said, “Big Daddy!” [Laughs.] And I said, “No, no, I’ll play Spencer Bennett.” He said, “That’s Spencer Bennett! You’re Big Daddy! So you’re gonna be Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett!” And that’s how it came to be.
DJ: Oh, my God! Now you’re reaching way back there! Yeah, that was a blast! Elvin Jones, the jazz drummer, was in that. And John Rubenstein, who later became a big Broadway musical star and who is still a dear, close friend of mine. And the New York Rock And Roll Ensemble, Country Joe And The Fish, and Joe Walsh and The James Gang! It was billed as “the first electric Western,” and I played this buddy of… Okay, this is going back about 200 years. [Laughs.] But The Firesign Theatre wrote it, and they kind of loosely built it around the story of Siddhartha, and I was sort of the Govinda character.
AVC: So was there ever a second electric Western?
DJ: Uh, no. We didn’t get a chance to do a sequel to that one. But, you know, the byline on the poster, because there was dope smoking in it and all this other stuff, was “A Head Of His Time.” [Laughs.] And so was the movie!
Sweet Hearts Dance (1988)—“Wiley Boon”
DJ: Wow. That was a wonderful script that never realized its full bloom. Another Oscar-winner, Ernest Thompson, who wrote On Golden Pond, he wrote this fantastic script, and I just loved it. And the funny thing was, I turned down a big movie to go and make this movie, because I just loved the script, and it was so clever and funny, and it was different from what I’d been doing on Miami Vice. You know, the bang, bang, shoot ’em up, blah, blah, blah. What I didn’t realize was that nobody wanted to fucking see me without the bang, bang, shoot ’em up. [Laughs.] But I loved working with Susan Sarandon and Jeff Daniels and Elizabeth Perkins.
The Hot Spot (1990)—“Harry Madox”
DJ: Oh, I loved Harry Madox. An amoral drifter. That was sort of one of the modern noir films. Dennis Hopper directed, and I’ll tell you a story that not a lot of people know. Mike Figgis had written a script called The Hot Spot, and it was a heist movie. Three days before we started shooting, Dennis Hopper came to all of us, he called a meeting on a Sunday, and he said, “Okay, we’re not making that script. We’re making this one.” And he passed a script around the table that had been written for Robert Mitchum in the ’60s… or maybe it was the ’50s… and it was based on a book called Hell Hath No Fury. And that was the movie that we ended up making. This was three days before we started shooting! So he was kind of looking around the table at everybody and saying, “Well, you know, if Don Johnson bails, we don’t have a movie.” [Laughs.] And I read the script, and I said, “Wow!” I mean, the Figgis script was really slick and cool, and it was a heist movie, but this was real noir, the guy was an amoral drifter, and it was all about how women were going to take him down.
AVC: Barry Corbin said that Dennis Hopper would always wear a tie when you shot in the jail so they’d know he wasn’t supposed to be there.
DJ: [Burst out laughing.] Dude, Dennis Hopper wore a suit every fucking day to the set! We shot that in August in Austin, Texas, but he still wore a suit every day to the set. And I thought, “What in the hell?” Because, like, we’re all melting. I’m going, “Dude! Relax! You’re the director! You can get away with not dressing up!” I don’t know what the hell he was thinking.
Miami Vice (1984-1989)—“Det. James ‘Sonny’ Crockett”
Cease Fire (1985)—“Tim Murphy”
AVC: How did you find your way onto Miami Vice in the first place? Did Michael Mann come looking for you, or did you audition?
DJ: I auditioned very early on, before Michael Mann was attached to the series. I auditioned for Tony Yerkovich, who wrote the pilot. That was in, like, September, and it was supposed to go by December, but it didn’t go, so I took this low-budget movie down in Miami—just coincidentally—called Cease Fire.
They auditioned every swinging dick on the fucking planet to play that part, and finally Tony Yerkovich came down to Miami, and he said, “Hey, you wanna have dinner?” And I said, “Sure!” I went to have dinner with him, and we talked, and he said, “Listen, I just can’t get your audition out of my mind. How do you feel?” I said, “Well, I love the part. I think I could do it in my sleep.” Meanwhile, they made me jump through hoops a few more times. They kept saying, “Well, just do this video test.” I’m like, “No, fuck you, I’m not doing the video test. I’ve done five pilots for Brandon Tartikoff, and they’ve all failed. Fuck him. I’m not doing it.” And eventually they would convince me to do it, and I’m like, “Okay,” and then I’d do it, and then I wouldn’t hear from them.
And then I was sail-fishing with Dickey Betts from The Allman Brothers Band off of Stuart, Florida, and I get this call—ship to shore—and it’s my agent saying, “Hey, they want you to come back quickly and do a read at the network for Brandon.” And I said, “I’m not doing that! I’m fishing!” And after about four or five phone calls where he’s screaming at me and I’m screaming at him, I said, “Look, I’ve got almost as much film on me as Gary Cooper. Tell him to look at the film!” [Laughs.] And finally they said, “Just come back, it’s a shoo-in, you’re the only one who’s gonna be in the room.” So I went back there… and, of course, they lied. I was in there with all the other swinging dicks who were still trying to get the part.
So I read, I went home, and that night I get a call from my agent saying, “Okay, they want you to do a film test now.” And I went, “You tell them mother…” [Starts laughing.] Well, anyway, I went off. I said, “I’m not doing it!” He said, “No! For real this time: You’re the only one who’s doing the film test!” And I said, “Okay!” And I went in, and this time it was just me and Philip Michael Thomas, so we did the film test… and, boom, off we went!