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Don Johnson moves on

Despite a split with Melanie and debatable movie roles, the actor and producer’s new TV series ”Nash Bridges” promises a career revival

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”There’s no point in getting into that,” Don Johnson insists, squinting coolly through a haze of cigarette smoke. ”It’s just fodder for the gossip machine. I’d be opening Pandora’s box. It’s not an area that’s appropriate to discuss.”

In other words, ixnay the questions about Melanie Griffithay.

As it happens, there’s something else in Johnson’s life to talk about these days, other than his double-ex-wife and her oh-so-public pawings with Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas. A decade after he nearly drove the hosiery industry into bankruptcy playing Florida’s coolest cop on the seminal ’80s crime drama Miami Vice, Johnson, 46, is returning to TV, as the executive producer and star of a new CBS detective series called Nash Bridges (premiering March 29). Set on the streets of San Francisco, chockful of trendy clothes and retro muscle cars, it may turn out to be just the thing Johnson needs to turn around a career that hasn’t exactly been knocking people’s socks off lately.

”But it’s not like, ‘Poor Don, he has to go back to TV,”’ Johnson points out between takes on Nash‘s San Francisco set, his famously scratchy voice making Brenda Vaccaro sound like Farinelli. ”TV actors are bigger than movie actors these days. More people see them, more people recognize them; the salaries in TV are rivaling those in feature films…. I have a very healthy career.”

Well, at least it’s got a pulse. After his hugely popular turn on Vice, Johnson’s push for feature film fame was rather a disappointment, to put it mildly. While other ’80s TV icons have gone on to bigger and better things — take a bow, Bruce Willis — Johnson’s been churning out clinkers like Sweet Hearts Dance, Dead-Bang, The Hot Spot, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Paradise, and Guilty as Sin. If it weren’t for the tabloids slobbering over the details of his recent alcohol and marital problems, he might have vanished from public view altogether. Or worse — ended up doing psychic hotline infomercials like his old Vice pal Philip Michael Thomas.

As a comeback vehicle, Nash has much going for it — including Vice‘s old time slot (Fridays, 10 p.m.) and a fun supporting cast (Cheech Marin as his ex-partner, Annette O’Toole as one of two impossibly attractive ex-wives). But it was a bumpy ride getting it on the air. Originally called Off Duty, the show has been in and out of rewrite purgatory for almost two years. The initial pitch — cooked up by Johnson and his Aspen neighbor, acid author Hunter S. Thompson (who dropped out of the project early on) — had Johnson playing a Bay Area cop who spent his evenings moonlighting as a private eye. Network execs had big problems with it, starting with, When did this guy sleep?

”Nobody got it,” Johnson says. ”No matter how well we laid it out, it was like, ‘Huh? Is he a cop now or a private eye?’ They thought it was confusing. But it’s two different spins. You call the cops for one thing and a private eye for another. I still would have preferred that concept.”

??They basically had no show when we came in,?? remembers Les Moonves, who took over as CBS Entertainment president last July. ??What they had missed by a lot. The concept and the writing just didn’t work. So we said they should start from scratch.??

A new writing team was hired (headed by Carlton Cuse from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.), a new title announced — Bridges (the Nash was added later) — and the private-eye B plot jettisoned. What’s left is a sort of Miami Grunge, with Johnson as a San Francisco inspector who battles computer chip pirates and BART train robbers, lives in an apartment the size of Wisconsin, and zips around town in a specially engineered mustard yellow 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda — one of only 14 ever made, according to the pilot. ??It’s a character-comedy-action piece,?? Johnson says. ??It’s more a show of the ’90s. It’s not as nihilistic as Miami Vice. It’s lighter. Funnier. Less violent. If there’s an explosion, it’s a funny explosion.??

??Vice was really trying to get out there in style, but Nash is much more about people,?? agrees executive producer John Nicolella, who was a producer on Vice‘s first two seasons. ??Vice dealt with drug dealers and shoot-’em-ups. This is more into human issues.??

Johnson has had to deal with some major human issues of his own in recent times — another reason his comeback series took so long to develop. For starters, after 11 years of sobriety, he suddenly and very publicly fell off the wagon more than two years ago. The low point came in April 1994, when about 3 million listeners tuned in to hear him wig out on a morning radio show, slurring his words, spouting obscenities, and making weird threats. (??I can do whatever I want,?? Johnson reportedly raved on the air. ??I’m rich, I’m famous, and I’m bigger than you.??) In June of that year, after crashing his Jeep Cherokee outside Aspen, he checked into the Betty Ford Center. He’s been sober ever since, give or take a few ??slips?? — another subject he’s not wild about discussing.

??It’s boring,?? he says, popping a cigarette out of the box. ??I think the best way to deal with it is to say that the disease of alcoholism is very insidious and mysterious. There are thousands of stories of people being sober for 10, 15, 20 years and then one day dropping into a pub for a drink.??

Then came the divorce from Melanie — which was definitely not more wonderful the second time around. The couple first met in 1972, when Johnson was working with Griffith’s mother, Tippi Hedren, on The Harrad Experiment. Griffith was only 14 at the time, Johnson 22. ??She pursued me,?? he insists. In 1976, they had a quickie Las Vegas wedding, but booze and the couple’s fast-lane lifestyle killed the marriage in less than a year. They rekindled the romance in 1989, remarried, and had a daughter, Dakota, now 5 (Johnson also has a son, Jesse, 13, with actress Patti D’Arbanville-Quinn; Griffith, now 38, has a son, Alexander, 10, with actor Steven Bauer).

The second marriage began unraveling when the couple picked up drinking again. In March 1994, Griffith filed for another divorce, claiming irreconcilable differences. Within hours, though, their publicist announced the divorce was off, telling the press that Griffith’s filing had been ??an impulsive act that occurred during a moment of frustration and anger.?? A year later, Griffith got impulsive again. And this time she didn’t change her mind; quite the contrary, she began making extremely public appearances with Banderas, 35, and in January confirmed that she was pregnant with his child.

From the way their lawyers talked at the time, the second split-up sounded particularly unsavory. ??Ms. Griffith’s behavior outside the marriage was one of the contributing factors to causing my client’s latest bout with substance abuse,?? Johnson’s attorney reportedly argued, demanding half of Griffith’s earnings during the six-year marriage. Her lawyer allegedly fired back, ??Ms. Griffith will not pay another dollar towards her former husband’s rehabilitation expenses.?? In the end, she got the Porsche, the two horses, and a David Hockney lithograph; he got the Beverly Hills and Aspen spreads, a 1949 pickup truck, and the jet.

??The reports that we were fighting over money — totally false,?? insists Johnson. ??[The divorce] was never bitter, never difficult.?? (Also presumably false are rumors currently circulating in no less impeccable a source than the Hungarian tabloids — Banderas is in Budapest filming Evita — that Johnson wants Griffith back.) Still, doesn’t it hurt, seeing his ex wrapping Banderas around herself like a new mink stole? ??Let me clarify my position,?? he says, after a cautious pause. ??Melanie’s happiness directly relates to my children’s happiness. So I pray for her happiness like I pray for my own.??

??Don has dealt with the whole thing pretty philosophically,?? offers costar Cheech Marin, Johnson’s pal for nearly 20 years. ??He’s a real veteran. He’s got the soul of a poet and the hide of an armadillo. He’s taken his lumps, but he’ll still be standing in the 15th round.??

No doubt. But will he still be standing on TV? CBS has committed to six episodes of Bridges and has bumped Picket Fences out of its time slot to make room for it on the schedule. But Johnson is up against some tough competition: NBC’s hip cop drama Homicide (which is gaining with younger viewers) and ABC’s newsmagazine program 20/20 (which does great with older folks). Finding an audience between those demographics may prove tricky, although CBS’ Moonves doesn’t sound worried. ??Don Johnson was made for TV,?? he offers. ??People just love him. They’ll welcome him into their homes.??

And if they don’t, he can always give the big screen another try. In fact, he already has: He’ll be playing a pro golfer in Kevin Costner’s new links comedy Tin Cup, due in July. ??My character is a study in insincerity,?? Johnson waxes, marinating his vocal cords with another cigarette. ??He’s awesome at golf, but he’s really great at playing The Game and the crowds and the whole celebrity thing.?? Johnson grins wickedly. ??He’s a real insincere dick.??