From Miami Vice to Marital Struggles: The Evolution Of Don Johnson


He Started Dating Melanie Griffith… When She was 14

His love life would take an extremely controversial turn when he met a young actress on set. While working on the movie The Harrad Experiment starring Tippi Hedren, 22-year-old Don met her 14-year-old daughter, Melanie Griffith. The age difference certainly was eyebrow-raising, even for the ’70s, but Melanie’s mother didn’t interfere. In retrospect, “I did feel a little strange picking her up after school,” Don later reminisced. Melanie recalls, “he was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life”.

He Started Dating Melanie Griffith… When She was 14

A Vegas Wedding

Regardless of the controversial age gap – which would now be deemed illegal – Don and Melanie’s relationship endured for 4 years, leading up to a momentous spontaneous decision after a brief breakup. “Melanie called at about 4 or 5 in the morning. We professed undying love and flew to Las Vegas and got married.” However, his marriage to the 18-year-old actress would last a mere 6 months before Don’s track record of hasty marriages that ended quickly would curse this marriage as well.

A Vegas Wedding

Don Juan-son

Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith divorced after just six months of marriage. It seems that what had worked so well as an illicit romance, went sour very quickly once Don and Melanie made it official, largely due to the toxic nature of their substance abuse problems. But Don Johnson, once given the nickname “Don Juan-son,” was quick to move on to the next; for the next thirteen years, he dated celebrity women including Cybill Shepherd, Patti D’Arbanville (with whom he had a son, Jesse), and even, briefly, Barbara Streisand.

Don Juan-son

The Remarried 13 Years Later

Melanie Griffith had a similar reputation, and indeed she was never without a significant other. Immediately after her split with Johnson, Griffith shacked up with Ryan O’Neal, and eventually ended up marrying Steven Bauer, by whom she had her first child, Alexander. But it seems that there was unfinished business between Don and Melanie. When Melanie’s marriage to Bauer fell apart, Don stepped in to support her. Rediscovering each other 13 years later, the two decided to tie the knot – again.

The Remarried 13 Years Later

Along Came Dakota

The second time around, Don and Melanie had grown up a bit. In a recent interview, Melanie reflected that she and Don “were imprinted on each other.” This second go also yielded a daughter who would go on to be a successful actress in her own right – Dakota Johnson, the star of Fifty Shades of Grey.  “It was sort of a natural karmic thing for us to get back together and to have Dakota. She was meant to come into the world, if you think about it,” says Melanie.

Along Came Dakota

Miami Vice

Meanwhile, leading up to his and Melanie’s second marriage, Johnson had finally achieved major success in his career. His big breakthrough came with Miami Vice, in which he was cast as James “Sonny” Crockett, the leading role. His character was an undercover detective who kept up his cover as a criminal middleman by wearing flashy designer outfits, driving luxury sports cars, and he living on a sailing yacht in a Miami harbor with a pet alligator named Elvis. The show became a huge success, and Don was propelled to stardom.

Miami Vice

It Made Don A Star

Miami Vice was not only popular, it completely transformed the cop-show genre. The use of pop music and fashion in the series had a profound impact on ’80s culture. Speaking of the show, Don says, “We didn’t just revolutionize television. We contemporized it.” The first season alone was nominated for a record-breaking 15 Emmy awards, and Johnson’s role earned him an Emmy nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, and a Golden Globe win. But with his newfound stardom came further downfall into a decadent lifestyle.

It Made Don A Star

Decadent Lifestyle

Don Johnson became just as well known for his partying as he was for playing Sonny Crocket. Soon, the decadent lifestyle he played on the show began to seep into his real life. “There were five modeling agencies in Miami and I would invite five models from each agency, and three or four male friends,” recalled Johnson in an interview, “And, um…We had a lot of fun!” All the good times would soon enough begin to take their toll on Johnson’s life.

Decadent Lifestyle

Poor Choices

“When I was a young man in Hollywood, [illicit substances] and partying were everywhere and it was hard to escape. It doesn’t become a problem immediately, it takes time, and it led to some poor choices,” says Don, and when the five seasons of Miami Vice came to an end and he re-married Melanie Griffith, he wasn’t in great shape. He had developed some serious substance abuse problems and, like Melanie, he struggled to overcome them.

Poor Choices

The Prison Of Fame

“I had been working for 15 years before that and had some notoriety, but that kind of fame is something no one can prepare you for.” Fame, Don explains, has its downsides. “That kind of fame is a prison. There are obvious perks… I took a good deal of advantage of – uh, what was availed to me. But at the same token, there’s a receipt for that bill. I’m happy to have survived it. A lot of people don’t.” While he managed to survive, his career began to flag as a result of his indulgent lifestyle.

The Prison Of Fame

His Career Suffered

Don Johnson’s work dried up for several years after Miami Vice ended, and he was cast in forgettable films such as Sweet Hearts Dance, Dead Bang and Hot Spot. Meanwhile, keeping up with the lifestyle he had grown accustomed to proved to be more difficult, as much more money was going out than coming in. Everything seemed to be going downhill, including his physique: “When I looked in the mirror I saw a fat guy and, in my business, that’s like suicide,” recalls Johnson.

His Career Suffered

Nash Bridges

But then he made a collaboration with his neighbor in Aspen, Colorado, writer Hunter S Thompson, which would turn out to be a success. Nash Bridges starred Johnson and Cheech Marin as Nash Bridges and Joe Dominguez, partners in a Special Investigations Unit in San Francisco. The show was a moderate success, but the real success would come much later, when Johnson won a $23.2 million lawsuit against the production company behind it, as he owned of half the show’s copyright.

Nash Bridges

A Marriage To Last

Meanwhile, Don and Melanie had split again in 1996, this time for good. Three years later, he married Kelley Phleger, a teacher and a socialite. In an interview, “I had a rare moment of clarity and asked this woman to marry me, and I still think that she’s under a spell. And so I beg of you not to snap your fingers, because God knows what will happen if she ever comes to.” It seems this one would finally stick: 20 years later, their marriage is still going strong.

A Marriage To Last

She Straightened Him Out

Don and Kelly have three children together: Atherton Grace Johnson, Jasper Breckinridge Johnson,and Deacon Johnson. According to Don, His new life with Kelley has thoroughly straightened him out from the mess he was, and that he “gave up his vices” to be with her. It seems to be a part of a larger awakening and realization that he had, that has radically changed him and caused him to reorganize what he sees as important in life.

She Straightened Him Out

A Moment Of Clarity

He says that he was standing on the deck of his multi-million-dollar Aspen ranch when he had an epiphany. He realized while looking around at his wealth — his boats, his plane, his houses — that he was totally miserable. “I had what everyone assumes are the elements that make you happy, and I was intensely unhappy.” He sold off his 20 cars and the Aspen ranch (‘the things that once defined Don Johnson’) and embarked on a more spiritually in-tune lifestyle with his new wife.

A Moment Of Clarity

Conquering Fear

“People don’t develop to the place where they can have long-lasting, mature relationships till they’re in their ’30s, and for some of us, it takes even longer than that,” Don said in an interview. Now, the former Miami Vice playboy has let go of his addictions with the help of New Age self-help and a Buddhist outlook on life, through which he has learned to let go of fear. “The original sin, in my opinion, is the fear of death,” he says. “Because it doesn’t make any sense.”

Conquering Fear

Breaking All The Rules

Don Johnson has managed to come out the other side of incredibly turbulent decades of women, partying, substance abuse, and financial and career woes. He is on good terms with his five children, as well as his ex-wives, who are even friendly with each other. A recent photo posted on Melanie Griffith’s Instagram shows the entire “Griffith-Johnson-Banderas-Hedren-Phleger-Bauer” clan, which includes Melanie’s daughter from her later marriage to Antonio Banderas, celebrating Christmas together. In Melanie’s words, their blended Hollywood family is “#breakingalltherules.”

Breaking All The Rules

Don and Dakota

These days, Don and Melanie’s fame has seemingly been eclipsed by that of their daughter, Dakota Johnson, the star of the film adaptations of the scandalous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Dakota and Don share a very close and warm relationship. “My dad (Don Johnson) taught me how to build a fire, ride a horse, ride a motorcycle, and shoot a gun – before I was nine,” Dakota revealed in an interview. But it turns out that some things are still a bit too close for comfort.

Don and Dakota

He Refuses To Watch 50 Shades

Johnson gushes of his daughter, “I’m so proud of her. She’s a dynamo, and she has good instincts about her career.” But he has drawn the line at watching his daughter perform in the racy films. “I mean, there are some images as a father that you just don’t need in your head.” However, he recently starred with Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton in Book Club, about two older women whose lives are changed when they start reading Fifty Shades Of Grey.

He Refuses To Watch 50 Shades

Career Rebirth

Interestingly enough, now that Don is in his 60s, his career has finally started to really pick up for the first time since Nash Bridges. The actor has only improved with age, and his performances in the film Django Unchained, the ABC series Blood and Oil have earned him wide acclaim. He has many new projects in progress and on the horizon, including the much-anticipated superhero series, Watchmen. This time, he’s doing it all in a healthy way and keeping his vices firmly in his past.

Career Rebirth

The New Don Johnson

Don shared in an interview, “I’m mindful of a quote attributed to Buddha, which is that you don’t find the pearl of enlightenment lying around on the beach. You gotta go through a lot of oysters, and you gotta scrape your knuckles and break your fingernails opening them all up. And then one day, there it is!” From a wild and dangerous lifestyle and a string of failed relationships to a happy marriage, health, and career success, Johnson seems to have found his pearl in the end. But where did this man come from?

The New Don Johnson

Humble Origins

Johnson came from humble beginnings. Born in 1949 in Flat Creek, Missouri, Johnson’s parents were a farmer and a beautician, and he was raised in poverty in Wichita, Kansas. But his love for acting began early on in his high school’s theater program, where he played the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. After graduating high school he went on to study theater at the University of Kansas, but dropped out after one year and instead moved to San Francisco, California to study at the American Conservatory Theater.

Humble Origins

A Boy And His Dog

Just a few years later, Don Johnson began acting professionally and found his breakout starring role in 1974’s A Boy and His Dog. It solidified his place as an American heartthrob and put him on the map as an actor. It would take another decade until he found real acting success and became a household name. His personal life got off to a rocky start as well, with two marriages which were annulled within a matter of days – but we know how that turned out…

A Boy And His Dog

Fashion Icon

Miami Vice was a cultural phenomenon, and it’s impossible to understate the enormous effect it had on fashion in the ’80s. With his wide-shouldered, white linen pantsuits, pastel t-shirts and cool sunglasses, Don Johnson’s character popularized a signature style that became synonymous with ’80s men’s fashion and would remain a fashion reference for years to come. There was even a moment on the hit TV show Friends when Ross and Chandler decided to take a cue from Don’s classic look.

Fashion Icon

“The Vice Effect”

Miami Vice‘s cultural effect went much further than fashion – it transformed the city of Miami forever. In the early 1980s Miami was mostly known as a retirement town with very little to offer and four times the national murder rate. But Miami Vice presented the town as “the capital of cool” According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Tourism revenue was at rock bottom… But when the show was canceled, a funny thing happened to the real Miami: It started to look more and more like the TV show.”

“The Vice Effect”

Don Johnson, Pop Star

Not many people know this, but Johnson wasn’t just an actor. Don had a brief foray into pop music and released two pop albums in the ’80s. His single “Heartbeat” even reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. He also co-wrote songs with members of the Allman Brothers band. But his most famous collaboration was when he, in true Don Johnson fashion, mixed his love life with his career when he and his then-girlfriend Barba Streisand sang the duet, “Till I Loved You”.

Don Johnson, Pop Star

On-Again, Off-Again

Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson’s on-again-off-again relationship was the stuff of tragic romance and the focus of Hollywood for decades. Their deep connection to each other was based on how much they had in common – but like the most heart-wrenching love stories, it was that similarity that ultimately made them incompatible. “You have to understand that we have a tie, and I love him,” explained Griffith. “I will always love him. But just because you love someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you can live with them.” Ain’t that the truth!

On-Again, Off-Again