Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs were to ’80s detectives what Stu Bailey and Jeff Spencer were to ’60s detectives – they set the style of their time.
I was going to make “Miami Vice” part of the last column, but the more I tried to fit it in, the more I realized it was impossible – because of how groundbreaking and trend-setting it was for police shows, and to the ’80s in general.
Don Johnson, as Sonny Crockett, with his pastel-colored sport coats – with sleeves pushed halfway up his arm, over a T-shirt – a T-shirt? – and feet in shoes with no socks was the way men started to dress in the ’80s. Don’t forget forgetting to shave, right Sonny?
A former University of Florida Gators football star, Crockett sustained a knee fracture which put an end to his sports career. He was subsequently drafted by the US Army, and served in the 1st Cavalry Division and in Special Forces. He served two tours in Vietnam – or as he calls it, the “Southeast Asia Conference”. In 1975 he became a Metro-Dade uniformed patrol officer and later an undercover detective of the vice unit. Crockett’s alias is Sonny Burnett, a drug runner and middleman. His vehicles include a Ferrari Daytona Spyder and a Ferrari Testarossa; a “Scarab” offshore power-boat, and a sailboat on which he lives with his pet alligator Elvis, also a veteran of the Florida Gators.
Crockett was an undercover detective for the Metro-Dade Police Department in Miami, hence the series title “Miami Vice”.
Philip Michael Thomas played Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, a former New York police detective who travels to Miami as part of a personal vendetta against a drug dealer, Esteban Calderone, the man who murdered his brother Rafael. After temporarily teaming up with Crockett, Tubbs follows his friend’s advice and transfers to “a career in Southern law enforcement”, fearing that after his serious violations of NYPD codes of conduct in the pilot episode, he would not be able to resume his job in New York. He joins the Miami department and becomes Crockett’s permanent partner. He often poses as Rico Cooper, a wealthy buyer from out of town.
The series ran for five seasons on NBC from September 16, 1984 to January 25, 1990.
Unlike standard police procedurals, the show drew heavily upon 1980s New Wave culture and music. The show became noted for its integration of music and visual effects. It has been called one of the “Top 50 TV Shows”. People magazine stated that “Miami Vice” was the “first show to look really new and different since color TV was invented.”
“Miami Vice” is to some degree credited with causing a wave of support for the preservation of Miami’s famous Art Deco architecture in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Quite a few of those buildings, among them many beachfront hotels, have been renovated since filming, making that part of South Beach one of South Florida’s most popular places for tourists and celebrities.
“Miami Vice” is noted for its innovative use of stereo broadcast music, particularly countless pop and rock hits of the 1980s and the distinctive, synthesized instrumental music of Jan Hammer. While other television shows used made-for-TV music, “Miami Vice” would spend $10,000 or more per episode to buy the rights to original recordings.
Getting a song played on “Miami Vice” was a boost to record labels and artists. In fact, some newspapers, such as USA Today, would let readers know the songs that would be featured each week.
The clothes worn on “Miami Vice” had a significant influence on men’s fashion They popularized, if not invented, the “T-shirt under Armani jacket”–style, and popularized Italian men’s fashion in the United States. Don Johnson’s typical attire of Italian sport coat, T-shirt, white linen pants, and slip-on sockless loafers became a hit.
Similarly, Crockett’s perpetually unshaven appearance sparked a minor fashion trend, inspiring men to wear designer stubble at all times. In an average episode, Crockett and Tubbs wore five to eight outfits, appearing in shades of pink, blue, green, peach, fuchsia, and the show’s other “approved” colors.
In keeping with the show’s namesake, most episodes focused on combating drug trafficking and prostitution.
There were several actors considered for the part of Sonny Crockett. Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges were considered for the role, but since it was not lucrative for film stars to venture into television at the time, other candidates were considered. Mickey Rourke was also considered for the role, but he turned down the offer. Larry Wilcox, of CHiPs, was also a candidate for the role of Crockett, but the producers felt that going from one police officer role to another would not be a good fit. After dozens of candidates and a twice-delayed pilot shooting, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were chosen. For Johnson, who was by then 34 years old, NBC had particular doubts about the several earlier unsuccessful pilots in which he had starred.
Jimmy Smits played Eddie Rivera, Crockett’s ill-fated partner in the pilot episode.
The other major characters were:
- Edward James Olmos as Lieutenant Martin “Marty” Castillo. He replaces the slain Rodriguez as head of the OCB. A very taciturn man, Castillo lives a reclusive life outside of work. He was formerly a DEA commanding officer in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia during the late 1970s. During his time as a DEA commanding officer, he opposed the CIA in endorsing the trafficking of heroin to finance their overseas operations. Some of Castillo’s habits, such as his desk always being free of paperwork and his request that anyone entering his office should knock first, were suggested by Edward James Olmos during filming.
- Saundra Santiago as Detective Regina “Gina” Navarro Calabrese, a fearless female detective, who after Crockett’s divorce, held a brief romance with him. Even after their relationship did not progress, they still have a strong friendship.
- Olivia Brown as Detective Trudy Joplin, Gina’s patrol partner. Though tough, she sometimes struggles to face consequences of her job, such as when she shot and killed a man. Later in the series she has an encounter with a UFO and an alien portrayed by James Brown.
- Michael Talbott as Detective Stanley “Stan” Switek, a fellow police detective and good friend to Larry. Although a good policeman, later on in the series he falls prey to a gambling addiction. He is also a big fan of Elvis Presley.
- John Diehl as Detective Lawrence “Larry” Zito, a detective and Switek’s surveillance partner. He was killed in the line of duty when a drug dealer gave him a fatal overdose.Diehl enjoyed being on Vice but wanted to leave the show, opting for a more creative opportunity in theater.
- Gregory Sierra as Lieutenant Louis “Lou” Rodriguez, a police lieutenant who serves as commander of the Vice Unit. He is killed in the fourth episode by an assassin hired to kill Crockett.
Two of the recurring characters were singer Sheena Easton as Caitlin Davies-Crockett a pop singer who is assigned a police bodyguard, Crockett, for her testimony in a racketeering case. While protecting Caitlin, Sonny falls in love with her and they get married. Months after their marriage, Caitlin is killed by one of Crockett’s former nemeses. Sonny later learns she was seven weeks pregnant, causing him further emotional turmoil
And Belinda Montgomery, perhaps better known as the mother of medical prodigy “Doogie Howser,” played Caroline Crockett Ballard, Crockett’s former wife who moves to Ocala, Florida to remarry and raise their child, Billy. Caroline was having a baby with her second husband in her last appearance.
Scripts were loosely based on actual crimes that occurred in Miami over the years. This included both local and international and global organized crime. Many episodes focused on drug trafficking – for which real-life Miami was a main hub and entrance point into North America in the early 1980s. Other episodes were based on crimes such as firearms trafficking, for which Miami was equally a gateway for sales to Latin America, as well as the Miami River Cops scandal – like a real police corruption ring that involved narcotic thefts, drug dealing and murders – street prostitution, serial home burglaries, crimes committed by Cuban immigrants to Miami following the Mariel Boatlift, and Yakuza and Mafia activity in Miami. The series also took a look at political issues such as the Northern Ireland conflict, the drug war in South America, U.S. support of generals and dictators in Southeast Asia and South America, and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Social issues like child abuse, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis were also covered.
Many actors, actresses, musicians, comedians, athletes, celebrities, appeared throughout the show’s five-season run. They played many different roles from drug dealers to undercover cops to madams. Musicians include Willie Nelson, Gene Simmons, and Ted Nugent Additionally Glenn Frey, Frank Zappa, Phil Collins, Miles Davis, Frankie Valli, Little Richard, James Brown, the band Power Station, and Eartha Kitt.
Other personalities included auto executive Lee Iacocca and Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy. Athletes included Boston Celtics center and coach Bill Russell, and boxers Roberto Durán and Randall “Tex” Cobb.
Notable actors included Dean Stockwell, Pam Grier, Clarence Williams III, and Brian Dennehy.
The show frequently featured guest appearances from up-and-coming actors and actresses, including: Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Farina, Jimmy Smits, Bruce McGill, Liam Neeson, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bruce Willis, Ed O’Neill, Julia Roberts, Esai Morales, Wesley Snipes, and Melanie Griffith to name a few.
Future notable comedians included: David Rasche, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Tommy Chong, Richard Belzer, and Penn Jillette.
At the 1985 Emmy Awards “Miami Vice” was nominated for 15 Emmy Awards, including “Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series”, “Outstanding Film Editing”, “Outstanding Achievement for Music Composition for a series (dramatic underscore)”, and “Outstanding Directing”. At the end of the night, “Miami Vice” only won four Emmys. The following day, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner could only conclude that the conservative Emmy voters at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences simply refused to recognize an innovative new series that celebrated hedonism, violence, sex, and drugs.
Television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz ranked “Miami Vice” as the 51st greatest American television series of all time in their 2016 book titled TV (The Book), with Seitz stating how the show was more influenced by 1960s art house cinema from Europe than by any other contemporary television drama: “Miami Vice superimposed ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ details about drug smuggling, arms dealing, and covert war. It gave American TV its first visionary existential drama.
“Miami Vice” was a groundbreaking police program of the 1980s. It had a notable impact on the decade’s popular fashions, and set the tone for the evolution of police drama. Series such as “Homicide: Life on the Street”, “NYPD Blue”, and the “Law & Order” franchise, though being markedly different in style and theme from “Miami Vice”, followed its lead in breaking the genre’s mold; Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” franchise, was a writer and later executive producer of Miami Vice”. Parodies and pastiches of it have continued decades after it aired, such as “Moonbeam City”.
The show has been so influential that the style of “Miami Vice” has often been borrowed or alluded to by much of contemporary pop culture in order to indicate or emphasize the 1980s decade. Its influence as a popular culture icon was and is still seen decades after appearing. Examples of this includes the episode “The One With All The Thanksgivings” from the American sitcom “Friends”. Flashback scenes from the 1980s in this episode shows the characters Ross and Chandler in pastel colored suits with rolled up sleeves like that of Sonny Crockett. Another example would be the film “Boogie Nights”, which takes place in the 1970s. The movie progresses into the 1980s and closes wit Mark Wahlberg wearing a white linen jacket, sleeves rolled up, and a bright pink shirt tucked into white linen pants. This informs the audience the year is now somewhere in the mid-1980s due to the massive popularity of “Miami Vice” from 1984–1986.
The show also had a lasting impact on Miami itself. Even 30 years after “Miami Vice” first aired, it was still responsible for its share of tourist visits to the city. The fact that Crockett and Tubbs were Dade County officers and not City of Miami police represented the growing notion of metro government in Miami. In 1997, a county referendum changed the name from Dade County to Miami-Dade County. This allowed people to relate the county government to recognized notions and images of Miami, many of which were first popularized by “Miami Vice”. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office now became the Miami-Dade Police Department. The Overwatch League’s Florida Mayhem who represents the cities of Miami and Orlando on January 6, 2020 announced the change of their color scheme to a Miami vice inspired Black Neon Pink and Neon Blue.
Q: The name “Sonny Crockett” had previously been used in another TV show. Which was it?
A: The name was used for a criminal played by actor Dennis Burkley on “Hill Street Blues” in 1983, where “Miami Vice” creator Anthony Yerkovich was a writer. Coincidentally, Gregory Sierra – also Chano on “Barney Miller” – who later played Crockett’s boss on “Vice” appeared in the same episodes.
Q. Actor John Diehl, who played Det. Larry Zito, and actor Michael Talbott, who played Det. Stan Switek on “Miami Vice,” played in high-profile movies before the series. Can you name them?
A. Diehl played the character Cruiser in “Stripes” in 1981 with Bill Murray, and Talbott played Officer Morgan – the Highway Patrol officer who pulls over Philo Beddoe at the end of “Any Which Way You Can” in 1980, and Clyde the ape punches him in the face and knocks him out.
Q: In one episode of “The Mod Squad”, where did Captain Adam Greer say he came from?
A: He said he came from Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Q. Who was Peggy Lipton married to?
A. Quincy Jones, who scored television shows like “Sanford and Son”, “Ironside” and “Banacek”, among other accomplishments in the world of music. They had two daughters together – Kidada, born in 1974 and Rashida, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, born in 1976. She has her mother’s acting genes, having appeared in “Parks and Recreation”, “The Office” and “Boston Public”.
Q. Did Michael Cole and Clarence Williams III ever work together again after “Mod Squad”?
A. Yup. Michael Cole played Clarence Williams III’s old CIA buddy, Desmond, who helps his character, Philby, do some sleuthing in “Mystery Woman” with Kellie Martin, a Hallmark production in which Martin plays a sleuthing librarian and Williams her assistant, between 2003 and 2007.
Q. Who played the chief of police who was against the “Mod Squad?
A. Actor Simon Scott played Chief Barney Metcalf, who would be familiar to “McHale’s Navy” fans as General Hubert Bronson, the commanding general in Italy in McHale’s final season.
Q. What part is Roz Kelly best known for?
A. Kelly played Pinky Tuscadero, the girlfriend of Fonzie on “Happy Days”.
Q. What other TV series did David Soul star in before “Starsky and Hutch”?
A. He was Joshua Bolt, the middle brother of the three pioneer Bolt brothers, who settled Seattle in “Here Come the Brides” 1969-70 on ABC. The oldest brother was Robert Brown, who played Jason Bolt, and the youngest brother was teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman, who played Jeremy Bolt. His girlfriend was Candy Pruitt, played by Bridget Hanley.