Though its extra-large “car phones” and pastel-hued costuming decisions might seem laughable to some today, Miami Vice’s impact went far beyond the small screen. From music to travel to fashion to facial hair, no corner of American culture was left untouched by the huge presence of officers Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Throw an Armani jacket over that pink T-shirt and let’s revisit one of TV’s most groundbreaking crime series.
1. “MTV COPS” WAS THE MAIN CONCEIT OF THE SERIES.
There have been differing opinions as to who came up with the idea of “MTV Cops” as a summary for what Miami Vice should be. While many sources claim that it was Brandon Tartikoff who scribbled down the two-word idea as a brainstorming memo, show creator Anthony Yerkovich has maintained that he spent years developing the idea that would become Miami Vice. “I thought of [Miami] as a sort of a modern-day American Casablanca,” Yerkovich told TIME in 1985. “It seemed to be an interesting socioeconomic tide pool: the incredible number of refugees from Central America and Cuba, the already extensive Cuban-American community, and on top of all that the drug trade.”
Regardless of whether you believe the story about the Tartikoff memo, there’s no denying that Miami Vice did become a cop show for the MTV generation. “The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions, and energy than plot and character and words,” said Lee Katzin, who directed two episodes of the show’s first season.
2. SONNY CROCKETT WASN'T THE FIRST SONNY CROCKETT.
Prior to Miami Vice, Yerkovich was a writer and producer on Hill Street Blues. In 1983, a year before Miami Vice’s premiere, actor Dennis Burkley appeared in four episodes of Hill Street Blues, playing a racist biker named “Sonny Crockett.”
3. NICK NOLTE AND JEFF BRIDGES WERE APPROACHED TO PLAY CROCKETT.
Producers showed interest in both Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte for the role of Crockett; both passed, reportedly to focus on their film careers. Gary Cole—who played a smuggler in season two’s “Trust Fund Pirates”—also auditioned for the role of Crockett.
4. THE NETWORK DIDN’T WANT DON JOHNSON.
Though the casting conversation kept coming back to Don Johnson for the role of Sonny Crockett, the network was against casting him, deeming him pilot poison. “I had made five pilots for Brandon Tartikoff back then, and none of them were picked up,” Johnson told Rolling Stone.
5. CHIPS’ LARRY WILCOX WAS JOHNSON’S BIGGEST COMPETITION.
Ultimately, the Crockett role came down to two actors: Don Johnson and Larry Wilcox, who played “Jon” on CHiPs for five years. In 2011, on his official fan site, Wilcox recounted how it all went down:
“Michael Mann asked me to read for this series called Miami Vice. He asked if I would grease my hair back and have stubble and moustache and be a hard ass. I said sure ... My agent told me they had read tons of actors and could not find the right guy. They had read even Don Johnson originally according to my sources.
When Universal saw my screen test they went crazy, saying that I was one of the finest and most intense actors they had ever seen in a screen test and told my agent, David Shapira, that I should have been a screen star with that intensity. I wallowed in the ego of those statements and of course … agreed.
Then they said that, ‘We need you to read with other actors to see if we can find someone that will be good with you.’ I read with many actors and did stunts and fight scenes and all kinds of crap for Michael Mann and the writer. Later I found out that the writer of the original series pilot did not want me and was perhaps just using me to read other actors. I went and read for NBC for the final decision and Brandon Tartikoff, the esteemed president of NBC, said in his book, that ‘Larry Wilcox was the choice for Miami Vice.’
On the day before Christmas, after helping them (Universal and Michael Mann) to find an actor, taking hits to my face in fight scenes, and all of the other such tests … I was informed that it was all bullsh*t and they were not going to use me and in fact were going to use Don Johnson. It was a cold blow and a manipulative blow the day before Christmas and I was upset and dejected. I wondered about all the compliments and all the hoopla and the lies or truth of it all. I still do not know what happened but it could have been the writer, it could have been an agent pulling a move with other actors in some other production if they would take Don Johnson on Miami Vice, or it could have been Don was just great. In retrospect, I think they made the right choice!”
6. CROCKETT’S BELOVED FERRARI WAS ACTUALLY A CORVETTE.
Like his cutting-edge fashion choices, Crockett was immediately associated with his beloved Ferrari. In the series’ earliest episodes, he drives a Ferrari Daytona; in actuality, his Ferrari was a custom-built 1980 Corvette. Unhappy that the series was using an imposter, Ferrari filed a lawsuit against the show’s creators. Ultimately, both parties came to an agreement whereby the car-maker would supply the series with two brand-new Ferrari Testarossas—but only if the old “Ferrari” was destroyed on the show. (It was.)
7. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE SHOWS ON TELEVISION AT THE TIME.
Given the show’s commitment to authenticity, by shooting in Miami—not to mention its music licensing rights—Miami Vice was one of the most expensive shows of its decade, with an average cost of about $1.3 million per episode.
8. A TRIP TO A PAINT STORE INSPIRED THE SHOW’S PASTEL COLORS.
In discussing the genesis of Miami Vice’s pastel-heavy costuming and production design, executive producer Michael Mann explained that it was the result of two things: a vacation he had taken to South Beach several years before the show’s debut, and a couple of color chips he found at the paint store. "I was playing around with them and I realized: three colors become thematic, two colors don't," Mann told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "Three colors, you can actually start telling a chromatic story. You can create a mood with three colors."
9. JAN HAMMER’S THEME SONG SET A RECORD.
Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” became a huge radio hit, going all the way to number one on the Billboard chart, and remaining there for 12 weeks—a record for a television theme song.
10. THE SHOW BOOSTED MIAMI’S TOURISM.
When Miami Vice premiered, Miami and Miami Beach were not the destinations people flock to today; the blighted backgrounds seen in the show are 100 percent authentic. In 1984, the same year the show premiered, Miami was dubbed America’s “Murder Capital.” But the series played an essential part in rehabbing the city’s infrastructure, and its reputation.
“When we were there, it was all retirement apartments that were dilapidated and rundown,” Johnson told Rolling Stone. “We painted the facades of virtually every building up and down Collins Avenue and Ocean Avenue to match the color palettes that we had for the show.” The show’s popularity led to a huge influx of tourists (many of them European), and as a result, improvements to the area’s hotels, restaurants, and other visitor attractions—a phenomenon that’s often referred to as “The Vice Effect.”
11. “THE VICE EFFECT” LED TO PROTECTION FOR THE CITY’S ART DECO BUILDINGS.
Miami Vice’s pastel-leaning design mandate included what audiences saw in the background. In order to help achieve this (Mann had declared that “no earth tones” were to be visible), the show’s production team was often tasked with prettying up the historic buildings that would be seen in the background of a shot, which meant that boring beige tones could be reworked in shades of pink, blue, and beyond. Seeing the opportunity for a powerful ally in their quest for recognition and protection of the hundreds of historic Art Deco buildings that lined the beach, the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) was able to work in concert with the show’s producers to make South Beach pretty again. “Miami Vice helped politically, economically and artistically,” MDPL co-founder Michael Kinerk said. “I have absolutely no doubt. It certainly put the Art Deco district on the world map.” Mann even ended up sponsoring one of the first editions of Art Deco Weekend, an annual event that continues to this day.
12. IT WAS A BOON TO THE MUSIC INDUSTRY.
One thing that made Miami Vice so groundbreaking was its use of popular music, and its ability to popularize music. Many of the day’s best-known musicians lent their tunes (and sometimes their acting chops) to the series. The show’s high budget was made even higher with the $10,000 that was allotted for music rights for each episode—an amount that allowed them to showcase music from The Rolling Stones, U2, Eric Clapton, and The Who. For the record labels, it was also a surefire way to see a boost in sales. The series even packaged some of these songs into a number of official series soundtracks.
13. THE SHOW KICKSTARTED SOME SERIOUS MEN’S FASHION TRENDS.
It’s impossible to think of Miami Vice without picturing Crockett’s iconic T-shirt-with-an-Armani-jacket look. A 1985 TIME cover story talked about the series’ impact on the fashion industry:
“‘The show has taken Italian men’s fashion and spread it to mass America,’ says Kal Ruttenstein, a senior vice president of Bloomingdale’s. ‘Sales of unconstructed blazers, shiny fabric jackets, and lighter colors have gone up noticeably.’ After Six formal wear is bringing out a Miami Vice line of dinner jackets next spring, Kenneth Cole will introduce ‘Crockett’ and ‘Tubbs’ shoes, and Macy’s has opened a Miami Vice section in its young men’s department. TV cops have never been so glamorous. Says Olivia Brown-Williamson, who plays Undercover Detective Trudy Joplin on the show: ‘Who wanted to look like Kojak?’”
14. CROCKETT’S STUBBLE HAD A NARRATIVE PURPOSE.
While it was important that Crockett and Tubbs be fashion-forward, Johnson also made some tweaks to his outfits to deal with the logistics of playing a Miami cop. “It was the eighties, man,” Johnson said. “It was all about what it looked like. I took what was handed to me and I turned it into my style. The rolled-up sleeves were a function of the fact that I had to have a jacket to cover the gun and the holster. I just stripped everything down to the bare minimum. I didn't wear socks because it was too hot to wear damn socks. And the stubble was born out of the character, because it was intimated that he had been up partying with drug dealers for two or three days at a time. That was sort of an unspoken thing, which is why he was always unshaven and looked like he slept in his clothes.”
To maintain Crockett’s five-o-clock shadow, "I shave with a sideburn trimmer," Johnson told People. Fans of the show—and its facial hair—had an even more appropriate option: the Miami Device, which was named for the series … until its manufacturer worried that they might be sued, and changed it to the Stubble Device. In either case, no one was buying it; the trimmer was quickly discontinued.
15. MIAMI VICE HELPED TO QUADRUPLE SALES OF RAY-BAN WAYFARERS.
By 1983, Ray-Ban was on the brink of collapse, until Tom Cruise donned a pair of their Wayfarers in Risky Business, making them the shades to own in the '80s. While Risky Business helped the brand sell 360,000 pairs of the sunglasses in 1983, Miami Vice—and Johnson in particular—helped to push that total up to 1.5 million by 1986.
16. PHILIP MICHAEL THOMAS MAY HAVE INVENTED THE WHOLE “EGOT” THING.
Though he always claimed that it stood for Energy, Growth, Opportunity, and Talent, many others swore that the “EGOT” necklace Thomas wore around his neck was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of the awards he hoped to claim: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Thomas has yet to be nominated for any of those accolades (though he did score a Golden Globe nomination, for Miami Vice, in 1986).
17. JOHNSON TRIED TO LEAVE AFTER THE SECOND SEASON.
By the end of season two, Johnson’s contract was up—and he was ready to bolt. When filming resumed on the show and Johnson had still not negotiated a new contract, he was a no-show on the set. “We’re shooting around him for now,” an anonymous network executive said at the time. “But it’s costing $50,000 a day to shoot without him, and we’re not going to let him drag the show down with him.” So the network came up with a plan: they tapped Mark Harmon to take over for Johnson. Eventually, both sides came to an agreement—one that made Johnson one of the highest paid actors of the 1980s.
18. THOMAS LIKED THAT JOHNSON WAS THE MORE POPULAR ACTOR.
Though reports of onset rivalries plagued the series, both Johnson and Thomas vehemently denied it. While Thomas admitted that the two didn’t socialize much outside of their workdays, he told People that, "I like Don a lot. We have a good time." He went on to explain why Johnson’s overshadowing popularity was a good thing: "I liked that Don was getting the publicity. I wanted the mystique. The bigger he got, the bigger we got."
19. DALLAS WAS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR ITS CANCELLATION.
By the time Miami Vice’s third season rolled around, the show was shifted from the 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday time slot, which pitted it against ratings juggernaut Dallas. For many insiders, this contributed to the show’s decline in popularity. On March 21, 1987, TV Guide ran a cover story titled, “Dallas Drubs the Cops: Why Miami Vice Seems to be Slipping.”
20. THOMAS WAS "MISS CLEO" BEFORE "MISS CLEO."
A few years after Miami Vice's finale, Thomas signed an agreement to become the spokesperson for the Psychic Readers' Network, where he promised that "together with the world's most powerful and influential psychics," The Philip Michael Thomas International Psychic Network could help callers live their best lives. Too bad he couldn't have predicted that he'd end up suing the company for violating his contract, and would spend the next several years arguing his case in court. In 2002, Thomas was awarded $2.3 million. In the meantime, the company brought in "Miss Cleo" to replace the former Miami Vice star.