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From Ali to Xena: 38
Posted By Alex Belth On September 28, 2011 @ 1:21 pm In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled
Crockett and Tubbs (Mostly Crockett)
By John Schulian
Even though it disappeared from prime time more than 20 years ago, “Miami Vice” still has a hold on people, whether it’s because they dressed like Crockett and Tubbs at a bar mitzvah or they’re looking for cocaine residue on those of us who helped make cultural icons of TV’s hippest cops. Myself, I’ve never looked good in white loafers without socks, and I’ve never done coke. But I didn’t realize I should have said so to Robert Wuhl before I went on his radio show last spring to promote “At the Fights,” the boxing anthology that the sainted George Kimball and I edited. I was primed to talk about everyone from Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran to Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling, but as soon as Wuhl saw “Miami Vice” on my resume, he wanted to know about all the coked-out shenanigans on South Beach. When I told him I didn’t know anything, he gave me the kind of look Hillary Clinton must have given Bill the first time she asked him about that Lewinsky woman and he lied his presidential ass off.
I was telling the truth, though. I really didn’t know anything beyond the same rumors everybody else seemed to have heard. When I was on “Vice,” the last thing on my mind was getting high. I wanted to establish myself in Hollywood, and this was my chance to do it. We wrote the scripts at Universal Studios and shot them in Miami, which gave everybody there plenty of chances to go native. The most outrageous behavior I heard of, however, was when Dick Wolf called Don Johnson only to be told that Don had gone skiing in Aspen. I suppose you could excuse him because he’d run off on a Friday when he didn’t have much work to do, just a couple of scenes in which we could shoot his double from behind. Of course his double had the world’s worst wig and looked the way Don would have on a diet of Krispy Kremes, but Don got away with it. It’s good to be the star.
If Don had been anything less, he wouldn’t have directed an episode I’d written called “By Hooker By Crook.” He lobbied for Melanie Griffith, his ex-wife, to play a socialite who moonlights as a madam, and, wonder of wonders, she got the part. In a cast that was magnificently goofy – Captain Lou Albano, the wrestler; Vanity, who had been Prince’s main squeeze; George Takei from “Star Trek” – Melanie was the main attraction. She and Don did a lot of rolling around in bed for the sake of the episode; in dailies she’d pull a sheet tight around her at the end of each take and laughingly tell the crew, “Quit looking at my tits.” Don and Melanie must have done some rolling around off-camera, too, because they wound up giving marriage a second try. That one didn’t work, either.
The fact that Don was directing didn’t mean much to me until I came home one night to my apartment in a complex crawling screenwriters, guys going through divorces (who may have been screenwriters too), stage mothers and their children, strippers, and hookers. The phone was ringing as I opened the door. It was Dick Wolf.
“Don wants you in Miami,” he said.
“I’ll catch the first thing smoking in the morning,” I said.
“No, you don’t understand. Don wants you there now.”
Apparently our star had developed a case of the yips as his first day of directing drew near. So I took the red-eye to Miami, where a driver picked me up and drove me to the art deco hotel where the company was quartered. I slept for a few hours and then went out to the set. The first person I saw coming out of Don’s trailer was Kerry McCluggage, the president of Universal TV. That’s when I knew how big a deal this was, and just how skittish Don was.
As it turned out, he asked very little of me. I expected a demand for major revisions, but all he wanted to do was look out for his character, Sonny Crokett. He combed the script looking for the few good lines I’d given Crockett’s partner, Ricardo Tubbs. Every time he found one, he’d say, “I think Crockett should say that,” and I would dutifully make the change. Poor Philip Michael Thomas. He wasn’t much of an actor, but he was a good enough Tubbs, and here was Don turning him into a nonentity in his one shot at glory. It was as if Phillip didn’t realize what was at stake. Don certainly did. He’d been the king of failed pilots until Kerry McCluggage talked him into doing what Brandon Tartikoff, the wizard who ran NBC, famously called “MTV Cops.” Now that Don had finally found success, he was biting down on it like a pit bull.
Because I was in Miami to aid and abet him, he invited me to dinner at his home on Star Island. It was just Don, his son, and me (and the hired help, of course). He kept calling the boy “son,” as if he couldn’t remember his name. It was all perfectly pleasant, though: a nice meal, a little light conversation. And then Don looked at me very seriously and said, “They tell me you used to be a sportswriter. That’s a strange way to make a living, isn’t it?”
This from a guy who played an undercover cop who wore pastel clothes and sockless white loafers, drove a Ferrari Testarossa, had a pet alligator named Elvis, ran around glorious mansions shooting bad guys, and spent more than a little time staring moodily into the distance while Phil Collins or Simply Red or some other hot music act played in the background.
And he wanted to know if writing sports is a strange way to make a living.
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose it is.”
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