SAN FRANCISCO — After seven years, Don Johnson has returned to television in a role strikingly similar to the slick drug-enforcement agent he played on "Miami Vice." Once again, he portrays a high-profile cop, he drives a souped-up sports car and he lives in a penthouse apartment with an expensive view. And he's seen at 10 p.m. on Fridays.
Sonny Crockett, the role that made Johnson a star (and launched a thousand white blazers), did all of the above in "Miami Vice," albeit in a warmer climate and under different fashion conditions. But for CBS' "Nash Bridges," a few adjustments have been made.
Behind the flash and dash of television's newest crime fighter lies an affable personality, one who prefers magic tricks to karate chops in nabbing lawbreakers.
"This guy is an older, wiser, smarter, more mature kind of cop," Johnson explains. "Crockett would jump through windows and dive on cars. Nash does some of that, but he doesn't beat up his body as much as Crockett did. That, particularly, was my idea--for self-preservation."
Diverging from successful dramas like "NYPD Blue" and "ER," the month-old "Nash Bridges" prefers to strive for escapist entertainment rather than tackle moral issues. Johnson, 46, came up with the concept with longtime friend and vitriolic journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Aside from the show's brand of humor, their friendship is also responsible for Nash's habit of calling everyone "Bubba." "That's an endearing term that Dr. Thompson and I use with each other," Johnson explains.
Wearing a three-piece suit to match, Nash rides through San Francisco in a yellow 1974 Plymouth Barracuda--only 14 of these cars were made, of which the show owns three. His colleagues in crime-fighting include three cops (Jaime P. Gomez, Jeff Perry and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and a private investigator (Cheech Marin).
Johnson, like Nash, has matured and chalked up plenty of life experiences. The similarities between the two are many. They are twice divorced, have children to show for it and seem to have mellowed out after an unbridled lifestyle.
"Don Johnson plays a character who has gotten all A's as a cop but flunked his personal life," executive producer and series creator Carlton Cuse says.
The parallels with "Miami Vice" are no accident. "I thought, 'What would happen if you projected the Sonny Crockett character 10 years later?' " Cuse says. "Nash Bridges has the wreckage of his personal life that has come as a result of the devotion to his career."
Actually, the title of the show holds a clue to the comparisons between the actor and his identity on screen. Johnson decided on the name "Bridges" in the program's infancy. ("Nash" was added later after Cuse met a San Francisco police officer with that nickname.) Recalling the popular song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," he waxed philosophical about the significance.
"It's sort of obscure maybe," Johnson says, "but I felt it was a metaphor for times in your life and the troubled waters that we've all gone through in our lives and how we deal with them. We build bridges over them."
Johnson has had his share of trouble since "Miami Vice" ended its five-year run in 1989. His bid for movie fame fell flat with such box-office duds as "The Hot Spot" and "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man"; he did a stint at the Betty Ford Center; and he divorced actress Melanie Griffith for the second time.
Cuse, however, saw potential in the embers of Johnson's career. "There are many similarities between John Travolta and Don Johnson," he says. "Clearly, Travolta had made a large comeback, and I felt I could do the same thing with Don."
But why as another policeman? "He brings a certain set of skills, of personality traits, to the table," Cuse responds. "Don Johnson can play several different roles, but people like him best when he plays a cop."
For his part, Johnson says he's happy to be back on the small screen, particularly because he is helping to call the shots as one of the executive producers.
"Television is like an improvisational tap dance all the time," he says. "You've got to bring it and you've got to bring it now. There's no messing around. For me, it's very creative because, from soup to nuts, I'm involved in the show. . . . It's also not decision by committee, which I find in a lot of movies these days, when they cost so much to make. The decisions tend to be made in committee--unless, of course, you're [Martin] Scorsese or Mike Nichols or somebody like that who has the autonomy to call their own shots."
So far there has been an audience for the show, which replaced veteran "Picket Fences." It has outpaced NBC's "Homicide" all four weeks since its March 29 debut to place second in the time slot behind ABC's newsmagazine "20/20." This represents a 33% boost over the ratings that "Picket Fences" was generating.
Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, is obviously pleased, though he hasn't yet announced whether it will be back this fall.
"In a year when there have been very few successes in drama, 'Nash Bridges' is so far doing well," Moonves says. "It's rather premature, but preliminary signs show there is potential there."
Judging by history, Johnson thinks "Nash Bridges" will only get stronger.
"Interestingly enough, 'Miami Vice' was on for a full season and it was only in the reruns in the summer that we started to become this runaway hit," he says. "This show is head and shoulders above that already."
* "Nash Bridges" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).